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Friday, August 10, 2012

What does the "college cost" conversation tell us about the school industry?

I think it is fair to say that we, as a nation, are in a crisis around college costs.  The debate is being held at all levels of our economy, from politicians to provosts of the universities to parents trying to make tough decisions.

My reaction is two-fold.

First, why is this possibly a surprise to anyone?  The cost of college has been outstripping inflation for decades.  Not years, decades.  And the value of college has not increased at the same rate.  Further, colleges have typically been hiding their true costs with activities like deferred maintenance, again for decades.  At the same time, the explicit goal of more and more high schools is to send students to these ever more expensive colleges.  (That is still the Gates Foundation view of high school success, clearly confusing correlation with causation.)  Most parents have been convinced to prioritize "getting into a good college" over "quality of education" as their goal for their children in middle and high school, an unparalleled marketing victory for the entire school industry in gaining revenue while shedding accountability.

Second, what else are professional academics not telling us about other "obvious" problems in the system?  It is clear that the early critics of the cost of higher education, as recently as five years ago before it was in vogue, were brutally attacked by proxies of the education industry.  At that time, did academic leaders not realize that this was a problem, or did they realize it, but wanted to hide this reality?  Each says something equally problematic about the industry.

Regardless, what is the next shoe to drop? If a problem as transparent and obvious as a failing funding model is buried for so long, how many other problems, such as quality of instruction,  cheating, applicability of content, harmful social environments, curricula, and inefficiency of current media, are being deferred?

The introduction to my book Unschooling Rules starts with the increasingly prophetic quote from Jeff Sandefer, "If somewhere deep inside you, you suspect there’s something wrong with America’s educational system, we have something in common."  Unschooling Rules is filled with a lot more critiques about our centralized education assumptions that might be trivial if not of the current foundations to existing schools and which are operationally rejected by those we mistakenly trust to raise such issues.

The problem with our current education is not just the cost of college.  The pattern of the ignoring (even exasperating) of the problem, the ignoring then attacking of the critics who later turned out to be right,  and only finally the public hand-wringing should make anyone realize that the education industry is better at hiding deep, systemic problems than dealing with them.

We have to increasingly realize that the worst people to evaluate and shape research on schools are, in order:
  • Current employees of the education system, or people being indirectly but significantly funded by academic institutions.
  • The top 5% beneficiaries of the existing system. (I suspect there is no greater believer in academic Darwinism than President Obama.)
  • The people who's skill-sets line up with narrow skills actually taught at schools (such as journalists, who learned the craft of writing)
  •  PhD's and other people who's status, even identity, correlates with the validity of the current education system.
Frustratingly, many politicians who want to appear pro-education try to accomplish this by being pro-current schools.  This thinking is as flawed as trying to be pro-marketplace by being pro-current corporations.

The power of Unschooling Rules comes from the perspectives of people who know the importance of education but have given up on the industrial school model.  And you should listen to them because, if current trends are any indicator, there are going to be a lot more of them.


  1. Unfortunately, everyone thinks they know all about education. The fact is they don't really know much about it. Most have been near it, in the same way that they might have driven a car or even travelled in a jet aircraft without any real idea of the chemistry of how the fuel works or of the mechanism that produce a smooth thrust towards effective and successful education.

    Education is a moveable feast. Some find their way through it successfully without the accolades of certificates, diplomas or degrees - never mind the PhDs. Obviously directing learners to educational success is not altogether the exclusive province of the education system.

    I blame worldwide interference by governments.

    There are several factors governing the pathways for so-called education that are overlooked in your article. One I will mention here is the artificial idea that being in school is the only way to achieve an education. This fallacy is embraced by governments throughout the world.

    They commit atrocities outright by raising the school leaving age in the mistaken belief that this action alone will provide the pathway to solve all the educational problems while heaping all the responsibility onto schools to provide what, for many is an unachievable acquisition in that environment.

    What fuels the forge for this distorted educational machinery is legislation to raise the minimum wage earned by age-legal employee.

    These two factors alone run against opportunity that might otherwise have been available for most school-rejected learners to acquire useful on-the-job education, opportunity that gave us some of our most celebrated historical innovators.

    Nga mihi nui

  2. Great points. There is no question that the market for schools has been distorted by government policies, just as it has been distorted by hiring practices from large corporations. It will be interesting, as government run out of money and large corporations focus more on acquiring small companies than hiring, how these distortions may actually diminish.