Questioning the value of higher ed in a tippy labor economy, and forging on despite the rapids

I hate to get sucked into the techcrunch news blog, but it’s unavoidably the best news source for venture-internet stuff.

I was drawn to Peter Thiel’s rant on the value of higher education. In it he casts doubt on the efficacy of college enrollment, and uses the remarks as a means to pump interest into his venture fund, supplying capital to kids mature enough to stage interesting ventures, instead of go to college. I wanted to bring attention to this idea for a few important reasons. It’s something we watch carefully here.

It is commonplace now to hear journalists describe our era as containing a new bubble – higher education. In this matrix is the individual investment in education, expectations of social mobility, and the daunting notions of failures in the job market. In the background is the spectacular ascent/crash of capitalist college campuses, whose public stock has ridden a bubble wave to the beach.

Thiel questions the worth of attending college when employment prospects are minimized in our landscape, and that young, enterprising kids should rethink the assumption that college equals social ascent.

Thiel is right. The flight to higher ed is not guaranteed to avert poverty and lift all individuals. In fact, the commoditization of the advanced degree means two things, 1) it’s commonplace to locate educated individuals, going forward into the future (not inherently right now), and 2) getting a degree does separate you from those who do not have one. However, Thiel is insistent that the elites need not attend college. For some famous drop outs, they would likely make it without college.

But only in the internet/app market economy. Those areas are conquerable by a person behind a laptop. But banking on this singularity is probably difficult to impossible for most, if not all programmers, despite the cult of Mark Zuckerberg.

The internet bubble, housing, credit, and school-lending bubbles all circulated around massive participation in advanced, civlized things. And the failure to implement each subsequent revolution (mass internet commerce, mass home ownership, now — mass college graduateship) are all good goals, corrupted by unregulated markets.

But look what each bubble produced: mass home ownership, mass internet adoption, and most recently, mass college graduateship. All of these things are meritous, and though rocky, all transpired over the course of a decade. When talking with Arne Duncan (head of US DOE) it is clear that the US federal government is hell-bent for massive higher education, and will reach it. When the employment index rises, as it may do — the scores of new graduates will lift many families out of poverty and irrelevant industries.

What I am talking about here is the normalization of higher education, and the creation of a many-tiered education system that serves all who desire it. It is a bubble-infested industry, it needs regulation, but it heralds a new era where higher ed is the conduit to a better life. Taming the proprietary college beast is important, as well as taming the spiraling cost of traditional institutions. The government probably must exit the massive monetization of each brand of institution, to ward off the abuse of executives in each college.

Individuals must also undertake school lending with the full knowledge that they will need to find relevant, gainful employment for themselves. This generation will be singed by the experience of the new normal — a stagnant employment index, which dropped while they had already invested in a degree. It is true that if you entered school in 2007, expecting similar rates of college recruitment, that you would have seen the highest rate of such an index — and then witnessed it drop precipitously.

Thiel’s is an unfair generalization, and we cannot honestly see college as a poor buy, long term. Simply expecting a life-long investment in learning to pay off immediately, during a global economic crisis, is too much to expect. Especially when the Wall-Street-USA-centric world is expecting much more of the same.

We contend that student can now achieve a deeper, more penetrating analysis of the practicality of what they study. This will arm them with the landscape understanding of the choices open to them, at each stage of the expensive, and daunting educational process. We look forward to much debate on the above.

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About stefan bund

Founder of Next Acropolis. MS in Information Systems and Technology, Claremont Graduate University... Background in software engineering and teaching.
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