A First Step Towards Getting Rid of Universities

man in academic dress wearing mortar cap

Universities are a weird thing. The vast majority of things you learn are either completely irrelevant or quickly forgotten. This is of course not true for all subjects. But at least from personal experience I can say that most of what I learned in university is not relevant for my future career.

To a large extent, university is about holding a degree, not about the things you learned along the way. Someone who just graduated from college can expect a much higher income than a person who quit college two months before graduating. If income correlated with knowledge, we should not see a large difference between the two people.

Many of the jobs that required a high school diploma a few decades ago now require at least a Bachelor’s degree. Have these jobs become more demanding over the last years? I am skeptic about this. I personally believe that university is less about learning something useful than it is about showing that you are among the smartest people in your generation. In this sense, higher education is somewhat of a zero-sum game: you have to go to college if everybody else goes there in order to keep up. In the end everybody is potentially worse off.

Should I get paid vacation instead of a college degree?

Supporters would argue that university is a place for young minds to learn, to grow and to experiment. I have no doubts about it. The relevant questions, however, are: Is university the only possible place to learn and grow or could we achieve the same thing in other ways? Is university the best way to learn and grow? When I think back to the immense pressure to binge-learn for irrelevant exams, I have sincere doubts. And lastly: who should pay for that?

Think of an analogy: I think I could have learned similarly (if not more) important life lessons, had I traveled the world for 3-5 years to explore foreign cultures, learn new languages and gain new perspectives. Had I taken some books with my I could have even learned a similar amount of statistics. But should the state pay for this? In Germany, university is free, but traveling is not. Of course, education is not actually free and we as a society spend unbelievable amounts on it. Money that could have been spent otherwise.

One of the best articles I’ve read on that topic is “SSC Gives a Graduation Speech“. I really highly recommend it. The following quotes talk about education in general, not higher education. But I maintain that the overall point still holds:

Another intriguing clue here is Louis Benezet’s experiment with mathematics instruction. Benezet, an early 20th century superintendent of schools, wondered whether cramming mathematics into kids at an early age had a detrimental effect. He decreed that in some of the schools in his district, there would be no math instruction until grade six. He found that within a year, these sixth graders had caught up with their peers in traditional schools, and furthermore that they were able to think much more logically about math problems – figure out what was going on rather than desperately trying to multiply and divide all the numbers in the problem by one another. If Benezet’s results hold true – and on careful reading they are hard to doubt – any math education before grade six is useless at best. And it’s hard to resist the urge to generalize to other subjects and children even older still.

Why is it so easy for the unschooled to keep up with their better educated brethren? My guess is that it’s because very little learning goes on at school at all. The proponents of education speak of feeling connected to the beauty of mathematics, the passion of the humanities, and the great historical traditions. But how many of the children they spit out can prove one of Euclid’s theorems? How many have been exposed to the Canterbury Tales? How many have experienced the sublime beauty of the Parthenon?

These aren’t rhetorical questions, by the way. According to the general survey of knowledge among college students, 3.3% know who Euclid was, 7.6% know who wrote Canterbury, and a full 15% know what city the Parthenon’s in.

36% of high school students know that an atom is bigger than an electron, rather than vice versa. But a full 59% of college students know the same. That’s a whole nine percent better than chance. On one of the most basic facts about the fundamental entities that make up everything in existence.

“But knowledge isn’t about names and dates!” No, but names and dates are the parts that are easy to measure, and it’s a pretty good bet that if you don’t know what city the Parthenon’s in you probably haven’t absorbed the full genius of the Greek architectural tradition. Anyone who’s never heard of Chaucer probably doesn’t have strong opinions on the classics of Middle English literature.

So in contradiction to the claim that education is necessary to teach beautiful and elegant knowledge, I maintain first that nearly nobody in the educational system picks this up anyway, that people who don’t get any formal education at all pick it up nearly as much of it, and that people not exposed to it as children will, if they decide to learn it as adults, pick it up quickly and easily and without the heartbreak of trying to cram it into the underdeveloped head of a seven year old.

I don’t want to say that university education is completely useless. I very much enjoyed the time in university and I learned interesting things. Some professions definitely need an academic education and I have no objections to universities in general. I am just not sure that in many cases the trade-off is worth it, and overall there is very little evidence for the usefulness of universities (mostly because it is very hard to study the counterfactual). Think of College as a form of medication: are the side effects and costs worth the benefits?

Especially in countries where higher education is expensive (looking at you, Uncle Sam), coercing an entire generation of young people into college debt is a real problem.

Alternatives to the current higher education system

Why don’t we do education differently? Why can’t we, for example, just give college degrees to everyone who passes a specific set of exams? Why can’t I just learn everything on my own, prove that I meet the requirements and collect my degree? Instead, legions of students have to struggle with mandatory attendance and ridiculous fees. (These fees look even more ridiculous when all that universities currently offer is online courses).

I am therefore very happy to see that Google has announced a 6-months program that they treat as the equivalent of a 4 year college degree.

From the article:

Google didn’t say exactly how much the new courses would cost. But a similar program Google offers on online learning platform Coursera, the Google IT Support Professional Certificate, costs $49 for each month a student is enrolled. (At that price, a six-month course would cost just under $300–less than many university students spend on textbooks in one semester alone.) Additionally, Google said it would fund 100,000 needs-based scholarships in support of the new programs.

I really hope this will encourage employers to accept other forms of qualifications than college degrees. This is an essential step towards a fairer society where you have the chance to land a good job even if you didn’t have the means to go to college.

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