Higher Education and Sustaining the Vision

The Higher Education Bubble

In The Journal of Higher Education, Horton and Cronin (2009, May 22) asked the question, "Will higher education be the next bubble to burst?" They point to the fact that tuition continues to rise at most schools while at the same time families are having a harder time getting loans because of the bad economy. Recent college graduates - the millennial or "echo boomer" generation - have found themselves graduating with high debt and few job prospects.
French (2011)
In an article for TechCrunch, Sarah Lacy (2011) writes, "Like the housing bubble, the education bubble is about security and insurance against the future. Both whisper a seductive promise into the ears of worried Americans: Do this and you will be safe." Forbes writer Peter J. Reilly (2011) reports that millennials still believe in higher education as a means to a better career, but that evidence shows this currently holds true only for certain majors including math and foreign language. Reilly notes four indicators that could mean the bubble is going to "explode:"
  1. Making student loans harder to get - in particular by laws that prohibit getting rid of student loan obligations in bankruptcy.
  2. A "societal zeitgeist" toward different forms of post-secondary training and education (such as Kahn Academy).
  3. Another recession in the US, deepening the unemployment difficulties, and therefore the ability to pay off student loans.
  4. Students influenced by hearing bad reports about education and the opportunities it affords.

Institutions of higher education must adapt to survive

In the video below, AdamTheAnarchist talks about why he thinks his college degree is worthless:

One way Universities can remain relevant is to leverage new technologies to make their environments more accessible and more relevant. By offering online or blended courses, more students can be reached and more students can access education at times and in locations that suit their needs as learners. More students can be served, and the cost of gathering students together in one physical space can be mitigated. Cronin and Horton (2009) point to universities that are adding a third trimester, increasing the number of students served and lowering costs, and other universities, with help from the National Center for Academic Transformation, supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts, are using technology to cut instructional costs by as much as 40%. They point to other trends that also point to possibly saving institutions, including the government-funded higher education for returning veterans, and the prestige that American schools have internationally, attracting international students who pay full price.

Alternatives to traditional Higher Education

However much institutions as we know them change and adapt, there is already a trend away from learning in the traditional ways. The 21st Century Fluency Project (2011) identifies 21 things that will be obsoleteby 2020, including homework, language labs, a fear of wikipedia, and centralized institutions. As mentioned above, some forecasters are predicting that traditional institutions with their fixed locations and skyrocketing costs, will soon lose their steady supply of willing students. What will take its place? That question is still unanswered, but some alternatives already exist that point to the future of higher learning being a more self-directed learning environment where students create and maintain networks in order to educate themselves.

Mentoring and coaching - an alternative path to entrepreneurship

Lacy (2011) reports on Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal and entrepreneur, who believes that higher education as we know it is not only over valued, but also inequitable. Thiel reasons that if a Harvard education is so good, then we should replicate it and there should be a thousand Harvards. Why arent' there? He believes that it is the scarcity, and therefore the inequitable access to elite institutions of higher education is what makes them valuable in the first place. In an effort to replicate the Steve Jobs effect (the one-off successful dropout), Thiel created a fellowship program called 20 Under 20 in which he granted 24 students age 20 or under $100,000 to take two years off college in an entrepreneurial pursuit (MacMillian, 2011). Thiel is offering the fellows mentoring and support as they create their start-ups, hoping to prove that a four-year degree is not necessary for success. Thiel acknowledges that students gain valuable knowledge and connections in traditional universities, and thus calls his program "stopping out" rather than "dropping out." Equipped with a better understanding of what they need to learn in college, his fellows can return and make full use of the opportunities afforded to them, tailored to their needs.


In an interview in Salon Anya Kamenetz, author of DIY U: Edupunks, Entrepreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, defines DIY education "as the mentality that there’s another way to provide the benefits of higher education to the people who need it. It’s an idea that puts the learner at the center. Rather than the game being, 'How do you get into the most exclusive institution possible?' the idea is that you as a learner are identifying your own goals and assembling experiences that will be the most valuable for you to achieve those goals." (Lipinski, 2010) These experiences, Kamenetz argues, are much cheaper and easier to get outside of the traditional university. The video below is Kamenetz describing her ideas at a TEDx conference in Atlanta.

Other examples of DIY learning are:
  • The Brooklyn Brainery: According to their "about" page, The Brooklyn Brainery is accessible, community-driven, crowd sourced education. "Teachers" offer expertise and classes on a variety of topics (a quick scan of the home page yields Bee Keeping, Indian Chutney, Pablo Naruda, and the Origins of Capitalism. Classes cost about $30.
  • The Nomadic University: This is a work in progress, but is a group of professors and students working together to bring learning outside of traditional institutions and to use technology to make learning different and more accessible.
  • Free Skool: Free Skool is another network of learners free from the traditions of the higher education institution. According to the Santa Cruz Free Skool site,"We see Free Skool as a direct challenge to dominant institutions and hierarchical relationships. The project strives to blur the lines between teacher, learner, and organizer. Free Skool is decentralized, with classes held in homes, social spaces, and parks."
  • Free Video Lessons: Popularized by the incredibly successful Kahn Academy series, self education can be had for free on may different online sites, including iTunes U, which features lectures from Oxford, Stanford and many other top rated Universities for free.

Education beyond what we learn as teens in high school (and in ubiquitous environments during high school) will continue to be necessary in order to lead a productive and successful life in the 21st century. Some institutions will change and adapt, and some will be left in the dust as individuals work to create and maintain their own networks and places of learning.

Next: Funding the Vision