Lucas: College is the vehicle — or chauffeurWritten by Will Lucas | | firstname.lastname@example.org
“The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.”
— William Gibson
A friend of mine recently had some vacation time to spend. Knowing it was coming up, it didn’t cross my mind to ask how he was getting to his chosen destination. I only cared where he was going. Was he going somewhere with a beach? Maybe he was going to tour Washington, D.C.’s museums, or maybe go someplace where they speak the Romance languages. The means of transportation were mildly above insignificant.
Until about six or seven years ago, a college degree was your near-guaranteed ticket to the life you always wanted. By collecting abbreviations after your name, the value you could provide and the reward you got in return, only increased. If you had a bachelors degree and didn’t have a job, you probably didn’t want one. If you had a master’s degree and weren’t working, you were probably weighing several lucrative offers. If you had a Ph.D. and didn’t make $150,000 or weren’t the president of a college, you just couldn’t be trusted. College, at least for the past 100 years or so, was your ticket. It held a promise: Going to school resulted in getting a good job by default. Until it didn’t.
In this world, high school students get asked by each passing adult if they’re going to college and which school they’ve chosen. I find these inquiries quite odd. Like my friend who was set for a vacation, his mode of transportation really didn’t matter to me. I wanted to live vicariously through his enjoyment of the resort he’d attend. I wanted him to have a fantastic time and do what he’d greatly looked forward to for quite a while. He’d worked hard, and I wanted him to enjoy the fruits of his labor. This is why I look sideways when I hear this question asked, because it positions the transportation as the destination. College has, at least historically, been the car — or maybe the chauffeur. Going to university was what delivered you to the doorstep of your utopia. It isn’t in and of itself your destiny. However, when we ask this question we imply that college is the end zone when it’s only supposed to advance our ability to get there. We cause students to believe that a post-secondary degree is the only way. When traveling, I can take a car, a plane or a train. Might even walk. Getting to my dream has options also. College, while a major option, is still just that. One option.
There is a major democratization under way in our world that has already shaken our educational system to its core. While we’re bracing for a huge shift in education, we’ve yet to realize that it’s already happened. The effects of this shift are just coming to the surface.
College enrollment peaked in 2008 just after the financial crisis landed a swift roundhouse kick to the jaw of the world’s economy. Community colleges and technical schools spilled over with anxiety-laden 19- and 22-year-olds wandering in delirium from whatever the heck happened to their hopes and dreams, now lying shattered in a sea of debt crises, broken housing markets and plummeting job potential. That trend of fresh meat in the lecture hall has only reversed, however, and by current estimates, may never again be matched. Between 2000-10, the cost of college increased between 4 to 9 percent annually. During this same period, Internet penetration in North America increased 153 percent. There’s no doubt that the Internet loves to revolutionize industries and turn traditions on their heads mercilessly. It’s revolutionize alongside or get steamrolled. Information inherently wants to be free. Data wants to be known. Historically, sharing knowledge meant putting a message in a bottle. Today, it means broadcasting to the entire planet with just a few keystrokes, and for free. How do universities respond? There are plenty of theories, and I even have my own. How has the Internet responded? It’s responded with Coursera, Khan Academy, iTunesU, OpenCourseWare, Udemy, SkillShare and Udacity. These are all domains where anyone resting inside the troposphere can learn any skill from the world’s best teachers, as well as professors from MIT, Harvard, Stanford or my local college’s teaching roster, for free or maybe a crisp $20.
Newsweek stopped printing paper copies last year and found an amazing cover story worthy to grace one of its final hard copies. The title, “Is College A Lousy Investment?” They’re not the only one publishing stories with these provocative headlines. Forbes, TIME and USA Today have all done major stories on this same topic in the past year. So, is college still worth it? Yes. But the way we’re doing it won’t work, and obviously hasn’t worked in quite some time. Nobody with a lick of common sense is debating the value of knowledge, only the return on investment in college sheepskin. For the degree to maintain any value moving forward, major changes in how we structure these programs are necessary. Forty percent of students picking schools purely based on the football team or the super-scientific “girls’ hotness factor” ain’t gonna cut it. Neither of which is worth racking up $10,000-$25,000 a year in debt.
The best thing we can do for our young people is inspire a joy of learning. Not institutional learning or segmented learning. But learning and curiosity as a permanent state. I’ll write more on this particular thought later, but we have to stop pursuing educational experiences based on future job prospects. The future belongs to people who can make a way where there traditionally hasn’t been one.
College will always be with us, just as it should be. But we’re being forced to rethink what it means and how we do it. It’s important that we’re clear that college is an enabler. A key. An automobile. To position it as the destination is to stunt true development and creativity. Instead of asking, with odd suspense, if little Billy is going to college, ask him what he plans to do with his life, then ask him how he’s going to get there. To respond, he’ll at least be forced to think — and that’s more than asking what school he’s going to could ever hope to do.
Will Lucas is founder and CEO of Creadio, president at AWLCo, a music producer and former radio DJ.