Ken's Project Blog

September 16, 2010

Gates on Education

Filed under: Education — Ken @ 6:46 pm

A little while ago, various outlets jumped on this video of Bill Gates where he talks about changing the college “experience” and finding a more open model that doesn’t cost $50,ooo/yr for four years. Fine, but most critics (at least the ones I read) missed the real point – there’s education and branding, and while the cost of an actual education is dropping every year, thanks to various on-line resources for example, the branding of the students is still very expensive. Let me explain.

The education of a child, the teaching of complex topics to students doesn’t need to happen in a traditional classroom, with a teacher in the front of the room, slowly marching students through a dry textbook on a campus in another state requiring them to take out long-term loans to pay for their every need for the four years they are in college. Education can happen anywhere, and in fact a motivated student could probably learn almost any subject via free or very low-cost sources as long as the student has the discipline to teach themselves. Those with slightly less discipline can form study groups and reinforce their weak discipline with good old-fashioned peer-pressure (think book club). But that’s only half the problem.

A self-educated person can’t reasonably go out and “compete” for a job against someone with a degree from an established college or university – the self-taught person may be the better candidate for the position in every possible way, but their resume will never get past the first level of screening at the HR office. “Steve’s Basement school of Engineering” won’t convince anyone  to hire you over the other candidate from M.I.T. – it simply won’t happen.

The student from M.I.T. may or may not be the most qualified candidate for the position, but they have the brand name of M.I.T. to get them past most screening levels at the company and they will most likely have an interview. The self-taught person will never be called in for the interview.

The bottom-line is, for far too many people the branding of the college is more important than the content of the courses they attended.

Mr. Gates imagines a university that is based on the idea of educating as many students as possible for as low a cost as possible – certainly a noble goal, but many colleges and universities have turned into institutions of self-perpetuation, worried about improving their campus to attract better students who can pay higher tuitions so they can improve the campus some more… and on and on. A university that charges $3,000 for a course will not be interested in giving someone the opportunity to learn the same topics AND be able to earn credits for that education for 1/10th the price by passing an exam – it simply will not happen. Arguably, state-run schools should offer such alternatives, but they don’t, and they won’t as long as they have to maintain an ever-improving campus.

There are schools that grant credit for “unconventional educational” achievements – I’m a graduate of one, Thomas Edison State College in New Jersey – they assembled all my college credits from various schools and put them towards a degree. Friends of mine also earned degrees from Thomas A. Edison, and some included prior work experience to take the place of certain courses, and some classes were passed by examination (without ever attending a formal lecture or class).

I recently heard of a young man that graduated from a well-known school with about $160,000 in student loans outstanding and couldn’t find a job. Of course, the economy is mostly to blame, who knew four years ago that the economy would tank and jobs would be hard to find? Well, even if the econmy was going like gangbusters, I still think this student would have had a hard time landing work – see, his major was Drama. He took out $160,000 in student loans to spend four years of his life studying drama – he could be looking at an $1,800/month loan repayment plan that lasts ten years (Student Loan Calculator). When I heard about him he was at the local school district applying for a job as a substitute teacher, a position that pays $85/day in my district. Did this fellow not understand what it meant to borrow so much money for his education? This person woul dhave been better served (IMHO) if instead of going to college he had instead simply lived off of loans for a few years in Manhattan and done volunteer work in a theater, TV or movie studio and learned the business AND gained practical experience in his choosen profession. As it is, he will be paying for this education until he is in his mid-thirties, he will live in near-poverty unless something miraculous happens (likely involving scratch-off lottery tickets or a distant relative leaving him a pile of money).

There are problems in the way we educate our college age students – we think everyone is college material, we rarely do a cost-benefit analysis, and too many people study topics that quite honestly will never support them in any sort of manner of comfortable living. What possible job did this fellow I described think he was going to get that would pay him enough money to not only live on and maybe start a family, but to also send $1,800/month AFTER TAXES to pay for his education. President Obama on the campaign trail said that only recently that he and Micheele (his wife) finished paying off their student loans – a claim his opponents questioned, given his multi-million dollar book deal, Michelle’s ample earnings as Barrak “organized his community,” and the years since he and Michelle  graduated.

Most people say they want an education, what they really want is the branding of a major college or university – and they’ll pay amazing amounts of money to get that branding.

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