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Saturday, May 8, 2010

College: the hardest no-win decision your family may ever make


The industrial education complex wants to sell as many school hours as possible. That's their business. So they want parents and students to, at the end of high school, absolutely assume the student will spend the next four years in college, deciding not "if", "why," or "when," but "which," and buying not only the big service but as many add-ons as possible.

The first truth is that this is a big decision. It is a decision that has so many pros and cons, from credibility and mainstreaming and life-long friends and pre-reqs for worthwhile advanced degrees on one hand to binge drinking, staggering debt and subsequent indentured servitude, high drop out rates (especially for males), aimlessness, and protracted adolescence on the other.

It is also a different decision than it was thirty years ago, or twenty, or ten. College costs have been rising faster than the economy and inflation for decades. Meanwhile the predictive value is going down as corporations are increasingly less likely to provide extended training resources and opportunities to new grads, as the average length of tenure for new employees goes ever downward.

(This necessarily means that colleges either already cost more than they are worth, or they will at some point in the future if the prices continue to rise faster than inflation and the value they provide.)

The second truth is that the economics around traditional four year universities are changing as fundamentally in this decade as the economics changed for newspapers in the last decade. Between online universities, growing virtual communities, high value open-source content, and emerging portfolio and other "credit for real world experience" programs, the illusion of inevitability is finally shattered and the value-proposition is challenged.

For many, graduating college has changed from opportunity enabling in the past to a Pyrrhic victory today. But things will continue to change, and this time for the better. In the near future, college will not be one big no-win choice. It will be a series of worthwhile and exciting little choices made over decades.


  1. Thank you for this post. I had been considering taking MA classes to gain the letters after my name that are supposed to compensate for my lack of real world experience, and now I am realizing that if I were a smart client/employer, the experience and the portfolio should and will mean much more to me than some letters and a piece of paper. It may not be an exaggeration to say that this post has changed the direction of my life. Now I shall focus on building my portfolio. Thanks again, and warmest regards.

  2. Thank you so much for your kind words. Funnily enough, Master level programs seem to have the best and worst examples of education. Where done well, I have seen some amazingly powerful Master programs (the best examples of any education anywhere), but when done poorly, they are filled with people just wanting to check off a box.

  3. EXACTLY! You put this so well. I especially liked the analogy to GM. One more aspect of the whole education-as-consumer-product thing that I pointed out on my blog is that when advertising a product, you need to make it very easy for the consumer to buy and use that product, which has led us into the age of the extraordinarily dumbed-down curriculum. As I wrote in that post, if students are unable or unwilling to do the kinds of serious academic work that used to take place at colleges, they technically shouldn't be able to earn a degree. So do the universities refund their money, for failure to deliver on a product? Or do they lower their standards so everyone can get what they paid for?