1. Soul-making and the education bubble

One of my biggest pet peeves is the reduction of education to an economic transaction—to the gaining of marketable skills in exchange for fees.

That’s all wrong.

Professional and vocational education is all fine and well, but education at the K-12 and college level is essentially soul-making. To be educated, we must be liberated from our prejudices, from our bad habits of lazy thinking, from our tendency to rely upon emotional reaction and dogma in place of critical analysis. To be well and liberally educated, we must learn to value the truth and how to seek it, and we must be given background knowledge and academic tools to do so.

I think there’s a crying need for this today. All too much of what I encounter online that passes for argument seems to be more the spewing of reactions and dogma than the rational support of conclusions based on evidence, reasoning, and credible research.

We need to be better educated.

But let’s face it: there’s an education bubble. As many have pointed out (e.g., this guy and this one, both of whom were well-educated), education has become too expensive for “mere” soul-making.

Tuition at my alma mater, Reed College—one of the few colleges left that are still wholeheartedly committed to the liberal arts—rose from around $14,000 to $18,000 when I was there. (If I remember right.) The cost has simply continued to rise. The coming school year will cost $50,000. Of course, it’s not the most expensive: Harvard is up to $60,000. That’s absolutely insane. That does not reflect the real value of what one pays for when one attends college. It’s clearly and simply a bubble.

But to say it’s a bubble is to say it can be popped. How? Won’t there always be an enormous demand for the connections and status conferred by an elite degree?

Well, no. Not if the price continues to rise. The market will find a way. Eventually, many of the best and brightest, even students from rich families who can afford to pay the tuition bill, will balk at the opportunity cost and seek, or create, cheaper and better alternatives.

2. What people want (and don’t want) out of a college education

I made the contentious claim that Harvard’s $60,000 tuition “does not reflect the real value” of a Harvard education. OK, OK, I don’t really know if that’s true. In fact, I don’t even know what the words “the real value of an education” would mean. But let me explain what I was thinking.

Here’s what’s valuable about a college education:

• The credential itself.

• Knowledge and academic skill—and the liberal effects thereof.

• Marketable skills.

• The enjoyable “college experience,” consisting both of the joy of learning and the forging of meaningful (not just mercenary) relationships.

• Connections formed via friends and acquaintances and within an alumni community. These can be very valuable at elite colleges.

• Recommendations professors are willing to make to graduate school or employers.

• The credential itself.

• Other things (e.g., it’s easier to get into grad school at the university where you went to college; connections with researchers or practitioners in the field).

I don’t know what all that’s worth, but it’s a heck of a lot. The thing is, we already know it’s overpriced—because college tuition has gone up much faster than inflation, while the value of education has not increased. If anything, since more people have college degrees, and a lot of them are unemployed, the economic value of the degree has decreased.

The fact is, the things listed above, as valuable as they might be, can be had for a hell of a lot less than $60,000.

We also want a college education to treat us like adults with brains of our own. So there’s another reason the education bubble needs popping: the system of higher education is increasingly politicized. For libertarians like me, it’s ripe for revolution. A lot of people are disgusted with the fact that college, at least in the humanities and social sciences, has become as much a place of political indoctrination as of legitimate education. I remember some professors being extremely biased, back in the day; one could learn from them, but it was annoying. Things are several times worse now.

In addition, as a guy, I certainly would be thinking twice if I were getting ready for college, with so many stories of spurious harassment charges and so many students apparently incapable of handling controversial issues without freaking out (see the links listed in this Quora question). I think college should be a time of bold intellectual exploration, with students willing to fearlessly question and discuss anything together. I doubt I’d want to pay $50,000 per year in order to walk on eggshells around hyper-sensitive classmates, only to be indoctrinated by half of my professors.

Oh yeah, there’s a bubble, and it’s ready to be popped.

3. How to pop the bubble

The big question is, how on earth can we get the huge benefits conferred by college education, without actually going to college?

If we could answer that question, we’d have instructions for lancing the boil.

So here’s my solution. (The following is an updated version of this old manifesto of mine from 1995.) This is what I might tell my boys when they’re ready to start university-level study. It wouldn’t be free, but it’d a lot cheaper than a college degree.

First, how to get the credential:

(a) Plan on getting your degree itself by examination. Degree-by-examination programs already exist. So that problem is solved.

But you probably need more than such a degree, particularly if you want to go to graduate school or get certain high-powered jobs. So:

(b) In addition, plan to pay a distinguished expert to test you in your major. I think that, when there is a demand, comprehensive and prestigious exam services will come into being. Basically, you register for an exam, you pay $100 or $1,000 (it really depends on how comprehensive it is and how good the examiners are) to sit the exam, and at the end, the institution awards you a degree. Until such programs come into being, you arrange to have a private written, oral, and/or practical exam with a distinguished expert. Then you’ll be able to say, “Famous and distinguished scholar Dr. Knowitall gave me a final eight-hour written and oral exam about my subject area of  Wonkology. Dr. Knowitall judged my level of mastery to be ‘Very Superior,’ which is defined as ‘superior to 90% of students awarded a bachelor’s degree.'” I think you’ll be able to find plenty of graduate programs that wouldn’t accept that sort of recommendation in lieu of an actual bachelor’s degree. And if one such examination doesn’t seem persuasive to graduate schools or employers, arrange for two or three from different scholars.

But what about actually getting the knowledge and academic and marketable skills? How does one do that?

(c) With plenty of help, execute a program of independent study. When you’ve decided to start getting an actual college education, head on over to a city with lots of colleges and highly-educated people. Boston and the Bay Area are obvious choices, but there are many others. Audit classes—many professors don’t care if you sit in on their lectures. For purposes of getting feedback on your work, hire tutors. Find the most distinguished professors you can who are willing to help (for a fee; and be prepared to pay a fair bit, as they are worth it). Get a guest library card from a large academic library. If I were advising my sons on how to do this, I would tell them to hire a freelance academic adviser to help them plan and manage their studies in the way described here. Such a person might also help motivate the student, and make sure he or she doesn’t get off track.

The more people do this, the more a group of independent students might be able to get together and pay professors in the area for independent courses, a la carte. And of course if there are enough people doing that, then support mechanisms—apps, companies serving basically as registrars—would inevitably come into being. What I would not recommend is simply cracking open books and viewing The Great Courses, as excellent as they might be. Of course that could be part of your program, but I recommend against becoming an autodidact. A real education absolutely requires (a) discussion, preferably with peers as well as professors, and (b) feedback on your written and oral work, which you use to improve. It’s best if both (a) and (b) are done face-to-face, but today, no doubt some of this work will be done via the Internet.

But what about the “college experience” and the social connections you get from college? Where could they come from?

(d) Seek out like-minded students to study and live with. A central part of a new ecosystem of independent study would be, one hopes, study groups and shared housing, like independent dormitories. The idea is that a group of students all starting to study the same subject might rent a house together, near some big prestigious university. This might forge relationships very similar to those found in the college setting. Such houses might invite professors to teach classes. (Speaking as a former college instructor, I have to say that that sounds like a blast.) Other academic social activities—invited lecturers, etc.—can be organized via the Internet and would no doubt be supported by a highly entrepreneurial ecosystem supporting such independent study. (Digital Badges and Uncollege are two forays in this direction.)

Perhaps, as such an ecosystem begins to cause problems for universities, some universities themselves might support the independent students in various ways. This is what happened when distance education started getting popular in the 1990s.

What about official letters of recommendation?

(e) Relationships between tutors and independent scholars would naturally be closer than between professors and students. The tutors would probably know and be better able to write letters and make other recommendations than they do for regular college students. Obviously, we won’t know the details until we’ve done more experimentation, but there’s no reason to suppose someone who has undergone a course of study described above could not find a berth in graduate school or industry, directly with the help of distinguished experts who know the students’ work very well.

If enough students followed the path of independent study, there would be various competing national testing services capable of vouching for your level of expertise in a subject and for your overall educational attainment. One advantage of such a system is that it would be potentially more meritocratic: rather than saying you have an English degree from Harvard, you would say that you scored a 96 (out of 100) on the Yalvard B.A. English exam and an 83 on the Yalvard B.A. General Liberal Arts exam. To be able to reach such scores, you would not necessarily need to attend an elite school. But such scores might well get you into graduate programs, and they would naturally open other doors as well.

The system envisioned would replicate the college experience, but without the college and without the exorbitant college fees. I’m sure you could get away with paying instructors $10,000 per year or less; maybe much less. The biggest risk that I can see is that the economies of scale don’t exist yet, making a bit of the plan less feasible, or harder to execute anyway, for the early adopters. But not a lot of it.

It’s a little like homeschooling for college (a notion Dale Stephens was talking about a while back). Public schools in the U.S. are so unsatisfactory to so many people that a significant number of parents (like me) are opting out of the system and doing it themselves. The affordances of the Internet and the entrepreneurial spirit of the early 21st century could combine to enable a bunch of people to drop out of high-priced colleges and come together in a less-expensive but still high-quality, less-politicized, face-to-face system.

And it sounds like fun to me. It almost makes me wish I were a college student myself, because if I were, this is almost certainly what I would want to do.

A final bonus: the early adopters can make a business out of it after they’ve learned how to do it and worked the bugs out.