College kids happily staring at a computer monitor

University Education in the Near Future

I keep having this conversation. It’s on my mind because I have kids, surely. But a lot of people think about it. It’s university education. Specifically, paying for it.

My wife and I talk about whether we should pay for our kids to go to school or let them pay for it themselves. I am talking extremes – we both agree that we will help out with books or a couple bucks here and there, maybe even a used car. We are talking about is will we be writing the check to cover tuition term-to-term, or handing our darlings over to school-loan nirvana, to let them pay for it themselves.

Instead of entrenching my flag deeper and deeper, it occurred to me that it might not matter which side of the debate I come down on, or if we ever come to mutual consensus. Because it might be that the system itself is so flawed and damaged that it simply won’t be around in fifteen years, at least not in the same format it is today.

Presently, I am beginning to agree with this notion. It does not make sense to me anymore to have a student pay $1,000-$3,000 per class, especially for the exploratory “100-level” classes. I don’t mean only the “fun” elective classes (looking at you, beer-making and volleyball). I also mean those classes that provide a window into careers that only provide a professional track if the student continues on through the Ph.D. level – these are your Psychology 101 and early Sociology courses. Yes, they are mighty valuable. But maybe not valuable in the way we are treating a university education these days.

There was a time when higher learning was undertaken for the sake of learning itself. There was discipline, rigor, and study. At some point, college became a place where an individual could go to “find themselves”. Lots of study, experimenting, testing the waters. Next, it was about getting an entrance into the white collar job market, strictly. This was business coursework and fraternities, which was dubbed “building your network”. Then it was all about extending adolescence. Enter the dorm-room TV with the requisite PS3 or XBox. Classes were actually getting in the way by this point.

And now it is a mixed up value proposition of trying to balance all of the above fads with the real-world weight of the titanic price tag that comes with the package. Why is school so expensive? Well, for my money, I’d answer that schools spent too much listening to what students and parents wanted (building more and bigger and wider) instead of administrators giving them what they should have known was what was best for education. And that is investing in the ranks of your educators and their equipment. It is not building a newer, bigger gymnasium fitness-wellness-climbing-wall palace. But that isn’t what I am writing about.

In that context, why would I ever want my kid (or would I want me) to pay $3,000 (plus 3-12% interest?) for Sociology 101, plus another $250 for a textbook? (Note: seriously, I love sociology. I think it is a worthy pursuit). What sort of self-feeding system have we created here? If my kid wants to learn sociology, well, for $3,000 there sure should be a better way to give them a 100-level introduction to it than two hours of “boring” weekly lectures with 600 other students and a few hundred pages of isolated reading and writing over a sixteen week span. That isn’t an education; that is a hoop.

If President Obama gets his way, community colleges will be free to qualified students. Think about the damage that would do to the hundreds of regional colleges with less than 3,000-student enrollments. These tend to be pricey options for the students while the administration is operating on razor thin margins.

What if, suddenly, some of those students could get their core requirements out of the way somewhere else for free? Would enrollment drop? Or would it actually make room for more students – widening the overall enrollment pool? I think enrollment will drop, and that small regional schools will have to scramble to rethink who they are, what service they offer, and in the end, radically hack away at pieces of their identity. In the end, they will become specialized, two-year schools that identify with a trade (engineering, pre-med, education, etc). This may happen over the next 25-30 years.

Yes, I am leaping. But I need to – the alternative option of looking at at $40,000 — or $200,000 tuition bill for my kids, well, it isn’t really an option. I need to believe that some major change will at least begin in the coming decade to radically alter how our kids pay for school, and also why they go.

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