Education was built into my life. My mom set up the first bilingual special education resource room in Boston, the first of its kind in the country. My dad was a founding trustee of a virtual charter school and has worked with education technology issues for 20 years. My older sister followed my parents’ passion for education and became a teacher at a respected charter school in an impoverished area of Boston.
My sister’s school was celebrated for sending 100 percent of its graduates to college. College admission was the school’s stated mission and, despite a tiny budget (the school used the YMCA as its gymnasium for two years), they achieved their goal by using innovative methods such as a comprehensive tutorial system and longer school hours. Sounds great?
My sister believed she was making a tremendous impact on individual students’ lives. She was teaching a lot of high schoolers how to read at an acceptable level, something that should never have been pushed into high school. But she quickly realized that the majority of her students who went to college eventually dropped out.
The school may have gotten them there but what then? No one seemed to ask the most important question: is getting accepted to college necessarily the right end goal for everyone?
Peter Thiel, the first investor in Facebook and co-founder of PayPal, has been asking this question in a very loud voice.
His Thiel Fellowship awards a grant of $100,000 each to 20 students under the age of 20 to skip college and focus on their business, research or self-education. The demand for the program has been overwhelming. It is a modest program by scale but the disruption it points to lies in his profound message that we should be checking our premises about higher education. Is college worth the time and money for everybody? The failure of conventional education comes, in part, from the way education is constructed, in part based on the wrong end goal. Before college, the goal is to get into college.
In college, the goal is often a fake form of career training: preparing students for something that is rarely defined and rarely measured. Too often, the wrong things are taught for the wrong reasons in the wrong ways for a cost that bears no relationship to value or outcome. Most schools have become uncoupled from their true purpose: learning.
I certainly benefited from a $200,000 classical liberal arts education at Colgate. I developed critical thinking skills, connected with a valuable life-long network and learned how to learn. Was that worth $200,000? Probably. At least I hope so. But few people are willing to ask the question, consider the answers honestly and look at alternatives.
Since graduating a year ago, I made an effort to explore those alternatives. I have attended dozens of offline and online meetups, conferences and classes, all while supporting myself. My goal was to develop new skills that would eventually let me build a tech business but it has done so much more – each experience has introduced me to new friends and business partners (I met my two co-founders through a meetup) while igniting my passion to learn even more.
Does this sound like the conventional goal of law school or business school?
For all those valuable learning experiences, I have paid less than $900, demonstrating how accessible and affordable quality education can be, especially when it is uncoupled from a credential process, when it is learning for the sake of learning.
The grassroots growth of platforms such as Skillshare, Meetup, Codecademy and coworking communities like Alley NYC, New Work City and General Assembly demonstrate what can happen when people have a reason to learn and a platform to collaborate face-to-face. That’s why I urge Colgate to follow the lead of schools like Stanford, Columbia and M.I.T. by embracing alternatives to the way it delivers teaching.
I am currently enrolled in a free online Wharton class through the online platform Coursera on gamifying user experiences which, for Wharton, has introduced the Wharton brand to thousands of new “students” from all over the world. In the long run, that has to be a good thing.
Is there a higher education bubble? I don’t know, but if there is one, Colgate can be ready for it. Let’s use technology to create an alternative to the artificial gatekeepers’ restricted access model and unleash a learning revolution: a world where Colgate isn’t educating thousands, but millions.