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the education bubble

  • Wed, Nov 30, 2011 - 02:27pm

    Peak Prosperity Admin

    Peak Prosperity Admin

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    the education bubble

Once upon a time we learned differently. College or University was somewhere you went to become a fully-rounded human being, with a side order of learning a specialty. You could work your way through school and not pile up obscene levels of debt.

I say this as someone who has a sense of what education used to be like since she reads a great deal of historical fiction. (Example: I just finished Alec Forbes of Howglen, an 1800s Scottish novel where the protagonist starts out going to college to be a doctor and ends up deciding to become a farmer.). I also say this as someone who straddled two generations in American college eduation. Now the specialists are so specialized that mostly what you learn is the specialty. There is no time for much else except the endless finacial aid paperwork.

I started college right after high school in 1973, with a year at Michigan State in pre-nursing. That was cut short due to a major family illness, and I did not go back to university (new major, Safey Management) until I was in my mid-forties. Because I was working full-time and raising three sons while in school, I burned out and took off my third year at Mercy College. And  this is relevant since it meant that when I returned I was "out of sequence" on my courses: especially troublesome since the school was dropping my major. I had to get acceptable courses at two other colleges (NYIT and UCONN) to finish my degree. I got the grand tour, if you will, of how colleges had changed including course work and finances. And I wrote a paper on how education was changing as a result. 

Simply put, as degrees got more and more specialized there was less and less coursework devoted to "how to learn." There was some mandatory rounding education, though, still–I was required to take a music appreciation course, one history course a year, a mandatory communtications course (public speaking and essay writing) but except for the communications course (public speaking is, after all, an in-person sort of thing) classes were all taken remotely, over the internet, and you were charged the same as if you were in a classroom. I can state for a FACT that when you take a couse on the internet it is incredibly easy to cut and paste your answers from other sources and file off the serial numbers. You routinely had B or C students saying, in effect, "Me, too" to the few actual learners like me, and they were adept at sliding through with a minumum of effort. These seat-warmers who were their high school’s meal ticket to federal eduaction funds now skirted the very edges of plagerism and still got degrees – degrees that were paid for by federeal education funds and loans. Semi-plagerism on a computer is not conducive to a rounded education; heck it’s not even conducive to learning your specialty. And it sure has made a glut of graduates, who are now finding their degrees are lowering in value almost as quickly as their over-inflated home values.

As to the specialties, the pace of change today is so horrific that a degree in some specialties is practically useless. The older the degree, the less relevant the stuff you learned was. My paper posited that a professional license, with continuing eduation credits, would eventually replace many degrees, since it meant you were up-to-date in your field. Some professions have done away with degrees all together: I personally know several IT guys who have all sorts of licenses and no degrees. We will always need doctors and scientists and certain engineers to go to college, especially since there is no substitute for many of the hands-on things they need to do to learn their specialties. But my experience tells me the higher eduaction landscape has changed, and this has directly contributed to the devaluation of college degrees.  But the gatekeepers’ perceptions have not caught up yet.

That "sheepskin" got me past the HR gatekeepers. That is all a degree is nowadays, a way for Human Resources to cover their a** if you don’t work out, as in, "How was I supposed to know so-and-so would not be a good fit here? they had a degree…"  Considering the state of higher eduation nowadays, I value my degree in the school of hard knocks even more.