Now is a great time to rethink college

Both students and entrepreneurs have an opportunity to go back to the basics

As universities move many courses online this fall, students are reconsidering their decision to pay $50,000 per year, when all they’re getting is a set of Zoom lectures stamped with a university's brand. Nearly 3 million incoming college students are currently weighing their options, 43% of whom are considering a gap year.

The immediate challenges brought about by COVID are leading many to ask deeper questions about the value of college. It is a good thing for society to follow this question through, where it will hopefully inspire entrepreneurs and innovators to radically rethink and reinvent higher education.

Why do we go to college?

As a parent, college provides a safe place to let your child come of age outside of the home.

As a student, college provides:

  • a way to make a short-term plan, without really having a long-term one,

  • a way to sample different topics and experiences before picking a career path, and,

  • what feels like the most secure path to a high-paying job.

In reality, the massive price tag is really only justified by this final function — the path to a good job, and for some people, the path out of poverty. Colleges often cite statistics that show correlation between a college degree and employment rates or salary levels, but proving causation is much harder. And ultimately, the higher the price of college, the longer the payback period is – and the more inconclusive these calculations become.

Tuition at 4-year public colleges has increased by 37% in 10 years. The low elasticity of consumer demand for college is partly due to our uncritical acceptance of these kinds of employment statistics, and the fact that our public school system conditions us to consume education endlessly.

“School prepares for the alienating institutionalization of life by teaching the need to be taught.” —Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society

But wait... take a step back! As a prospective college student, do you really know what credential you want, or whether you even need one? You just finished 13 YEARS OF SCHOOL where you have been endlessly consuming education, and where you’ve been taught that consuming more education is the path to being successful.

Perhaps what you really need is space to build and grow outside the classroom, before you immediately jump back into school. COVID may be giving you the perfect excuse to do that. If you’re thinking of postponing a college decision, take the year to search out alternative environments where you can explore and learn from other people.

Consider environments that embrace the following principles.

  1. Play the whole game. David Perkins wrote that “you don't learn to play baseball by a year of batting practice.” Good coaches give you the macro-level gist of the game, while helping you get better at independent practice. Most college courses are not designed according to this philosophy, but with good books and a great mentor, most subjects can be learned this way.

  2. Sample from many different fields. Magic and enlightenment happen when we connect insights from otherwise-disconnected disciplines. In his book Range, David Epstein proposes that those who find success in a specialized field often succeed because of the fact that they first took time to explore and synthesize experiences across many different topics. This ethos is part of the promise of a liberal arts degree, so college can be a good (albeit expensive) place to explore. But many students – especially if majoring in a technical discipline – don’t actually have space for a lot of exploration.

  3. Build things. A piece of paper that says you took a bunch of classes may help get you a first job. But actually building a product or company is a better way to learn, and ultimately more impressive. Launch an email newsletter. Design a consumer product. Build an app. You can do that many times over in the time you’d spend on a college degree.

  4. Prioritize human credentials. The big-company job descriptions you read may say you need a bachelor’s degree, but the truth is that the person teaching you matters more than the institution you attend. Having a top Facebook engineer vouching for your code is worth more than a CS degree from most universities. A college degree is ultimately just a proxy for “humans who will vouch for you.” Long-term, the most important credentials will be the names of your mentors.

  5. Plan for lifelong learning. Assume that you will become curious about new things throughout your life. Don’t assume that your career needs to be one endless stretch of work – plan for a career that incorporates learning sabbaticals between jobs. Recognize that taking on hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt in your early twenties may limit your ability to do this.

We must find alternatives to the unquestioning consumer mindset that posits that college, as we now know it, is the default path to a good life. Right now, only the most motivated will chart a different path, but we need entrepreneurs to step up and create new alternative educational institutions that embody these principles.

Thanks to Andrew Schwartz, Joe Philleo, Stacey Maresco, Valori Maresco, and Duke Christoffersen for early reads and feedback on this piece.