Will: See the sad thing about a guy like you, is in about 50 years you’re gonna start doin' some thinkin' on your own and you’re gonna come up with the fact that... you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a fuckin’ education you coulda' got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the Public Library.
The above quote is from the film Good Will Hunting. It's from one of my favorite scenes in the movie where the main character absolutely embarrasses a well off Harvard graduate student in a bar. It also happens to be my current view on higher education in the most memorable form I've ever heard.
A recent book I read titled How Will You Measure Your Life? by Clayton M. Christensen talked about three possible capabilities that a business can provide. They include all the possibilities for what a business can offer and mutually exclusive. He named them resources, processes and priorities.
So what is the value of higher education? It certainly isn't information. Information is free and ubiquitous with an internet connection. You can find course syllabi online from Harvard, Stanford, and MIT and get all the recommended reading materials from online sites like Amazon and Google Scholar. You can follow along with the schedule by yourself at your own pace and do only the parts of a course that you personally see as valuable or meaningful to current situation.
I had assumed that higher education was about the process. After all, educational theory touts not focusing on performance, but the deep understanding. This should lead to process oriented teaching and focusing on the value in providing those processes to others. This doesn't seem to be the case in my experience. What has actually happened is that higher education bundles resources about processes and sells that information. Selling information is just resource service and you can read my thoughts about that above.
I believe processes should be what higher education focuses on, along with the next section on priorities. The value of mentoring, modeling, and apprenticeship can not be overstated in my opinion and it is backed up by many educational researchers including Vygotsky, Rose, and Rogers. The process of learning through apprenticeship is completely bypassed for the teacher-centered convenience of group classes and "constructivist" approaches that force students to learn the material by themselves, at a fraction of the pace they could, by simply observing and imitating real professionals.
So if it's not information and knowledge, i.e. resources, or processes what is it? Priorities? That was my my next thought, well higher education acts a good filter for knowledge. A university can more quickly and correctly decide what information is valuable and disseminate it for us. I do think that is still largely true, but with a caveat. Just because they are capable, doesn't mean that they act this way.
The vast majority of higher education creates programs, which you the student, must fit into. They set the priorities without consulting you. They do not take into account anything about you, the individual, and what you want or need. Naturally, they could prioritize information for you if they felt as though they needed to or it benefited them, but as of now they have no reason to. They simply force you to accept their program and do not go through the hard work of actually prioritizing the information most relevant to the individual.
It's All Necessity
So, if it's not information resources, processes or priorities, what does higher education offer? Nothing.
Nothing of value that is. They are offering you the degree, which in most cases is the only thing you actually need. What you study, where you study, how you study, and whether the information is useful is really not that important. All most professionals need is that graduate degree in something.
This is a great position for any business to be in. They essentially have the customer by the "you know what", and have no reason to change strategies. However, this shortsightedness is going to make higher education pay a huge price in the coming years. This is because higher education doesn't typically view itself as a business, but rather as a institution for the greater good. In that role, higher education is attempting to grant access to itself to more and more individuals. This truly is wonderful and something I agree with. Everyone should have access to education.
But what happens when everyone does have a degree? Will employers still require one? A degree cannot be used as a filter or gateway to employment opportunities when the entire workforce has one. Once some critical percent of the workforce does in fact have a degree, it will no longer be valuable in acting as a filter of talent. That means higher education will no longer have their customers by the "you know what". Since they don't provide much value to the individual and the future access to education will take away the necessity of having a degree, where will higher education be left?
I have some thoughts about what will happen, but for now I just wanted to share my ideas on where the value is in higher education. People see getting degrees as a necessity for employment and that means universities don't truly have to focus on content value. People will continue to buy degrees whether they enjoy or value the product. However, when that necessity leaves and people realize there is little intrinsic value, higher education is going to have to perform a one-eighty really quickly. Personally, I'm looking forward to it.