Continued College Myopia

Yet another piece in the NY Times predicting the imminent demise of universities.  Honestly, you’d think the failure of books, correspondence courses, video courses and other such remote learning environments to displace colleges might have made the author more cautious about predicting that just adding some proof of completion of a course of electronically-completed study would be the magic bullet to slay the academic beast. (And this from some think tank guy who wrote a whole book?  Wow). We don’t need to rehash the problems with MOOCs and other such creatures, but this piece does bring up an interesting question.

The argument is that employers use a college degree as a substitute for more substantive proof of education on a specific topic.  So if you need to know, say, statistics, you could pass some online statistics program and get your proof of completion, and off you go to be a statistician somewhere. (There is also the argument that such programs will be cheap; you may end up not paying the prof that much–don’t count on MIT supplying these things for free for very long–but there will be a need for other support staff; the most promising use of MOOCs involves having local support staff that can meet with students and help them engage with the material).

Frankly, if this is all students are going to college for, then we can all hope that something like this emerges.  Disinterested students, indebted alums, angry parents, unhappy employers–none of these are going to benefit higher education. So best to push such students out into some other way of getting that minimal badge of honor they want.

Unfortunately for this concept, students do learn a lot more than just some specific skills. Many gain contacts that will serve them well through their lives (arguably the benefit of going to Stanford or Harvard isn’t the education, which realistically is not much superior to many other schools, it is getting to know classmates who will be the movers and shakers of their generation). Many will learn to be adults despite their best efforts; college, despite colleges’ withdrawal from being the stand-in parent, is still a relatively safe place to screw up without destroying your whole life (be a drunk late to work every week and see how long it takes to get out from under those bad recommendation letters; be a crappy student for a term because you kept partying too much and you can write it off as “personal issues”). More than a few will discover where their true passions lie: most college freshman have less than a clear idea of what major they want to pursue, let alone what kind of career they want. Most will become better writers and clearer thinkers in spite of their dislike of those courses. None of this would happen in the world of skill-specific MOOCs (and if you think graduation rates from college are bad now, look into the success rate of MOOCs in students completing a single course, let alone a suite of them).

Does this excuse the terrible financial burden many assume? No. Does it mean we should stop trying things like proof-of-competence in a MOOC? No, though this is probably more of a threat to professional Master’s programs than regular 4 year colleges. It means we just have to understand what the full value of college is before we pretend we can strip away much of that value and solve our problems.

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