Tuition prices and student debt have greatly increased over the last few decades (1, 2). “So what,” some might say, because those with college and university education earn much more than high school grads over their lifetime, for example. And many go on to do great things afterwards, such as Jeff Bezos, a Princeton Graduate and the world's wealthiest man. The same people might say those who want free college tuition are too entitled and just lazy. Sure, that's a reasonable argument, however, there are many more reasons to oppose the current system, that you can read in this article from Quillette. But whether one believes the traditional higher education system to be effective or ineffective, one must ask the question, has the university system really improved in the last hundred years? What if there is a better way to do it?
We are living in the information age today. Computers are becoming ubiquitous (especially in the form of smartphones) and the number of people connected to the internet is growing everyday (3, 4). You might have heard the phrase ‘software is eating the world.’ What is software? It is a program or set of instructions telling a computer how to perform a task. To provide a visual example, think of software as being your favourite superhero’s superpowers. Now imagine those powers are all held in a suit and whoever wears the suit can get such powers. Instead of a person, imagine the suit wrapping itself around a specific field, like education, and providing it with new functionality and powers never before imagined. This type of super-transformation has started happening across many fields already, be it military, agriculture, transportation, but the education sector is one area that has a lot of potential if it is revolutionized.
The current dominant university model around the world was built for the Pre-internet era, when the only way to acquire knowledge was through physical books or in class. But now the physical barriers have been removed. Anyone with a smartphone and internet connection has access to all the knowledge in the world. The same courses and certificates taught in universities can be learned online for free, or for a fraction of the cost on websites like Coursera, edX and Udacity. So why would students pay much more in universities and colleges? Students are obliged to attend the physical institutions because this is currently the default signalling method for many types of jobs. Most companies still require traditional degrees. This is an expensive way to prove one’s competency in activities (studying and writing tests) that are not really relevant to real world scenarios. Surely, there has to be a superior and cheaper signalling method to employers that can compete with the default method.
This is where online education shows promise. Although it is still new, it will only get better. For example, there is a new revolutionary model introduced by Lambda School. It is a virtual school that charges no money up-front and then 17% of your income for two years, that is only if you make at least around $50,000 USD per year within 5 years of graduating. There is also an option for a one time payment of $20,000 USD up front. The classes are around 7 months long instead of 4 years and focus on teaching practical skills with which one can begin a career. But it is the no-upfront fee that has potential to change the way we do post-secondary education. How and why would this be better and would these students miss out on having a well-rounded education?* If you go with the assumption that most students go to university to obtain a job, then it makes more sense for those students to join an organization that is purely focused on making them competent for the job market. Since Lambda allows graduates to pay school tuition after getting a good job in the relevant field, if the school doesn't provide a good education and build students' skills efficiently, the graduates won’t get hired and the school won’t make any money. If the school doesn’t make any money, it will cease to exist. If certain teaching methods or classes do not work, they will quickly be dropped for better ones. Thus, in order to keep running, the School must constantly improve teaching methods to be in sync with current industry trends and be able to churn out effectively-skilled graduates.
Meanwhile, traditional institutions require tuition to be paid at the beginning of each semester/term. Whether the student has a good experience or not, whether they are able to find a job in their field of study, is irrelevant in traditional education. Yet the new model of education, with no money upfront, is still new and a few more years are needed for definitive data on how graduates of the new system compare with the traditional ones. But if this new model works, the traditional college/university signalling value will become less relevant. It is because hiring companies will slowly become more inclined towards the quality of the graduates from the new education system, that possess more real world skills. It is precisely the fact that the institution and graduate have a shared risk in the success of the graduate, that compels the institution to continuously enhance its talent-cultivating educational materials. This can help shift the mentality of hiring teams to award talent over a name brand university.
Another advantage from the Lambda-type model is a lack of debt for students (no high cost barrier to entry), which can level the playing field for students from different socioeconomic backgrounds. Students from well-off families can easily handle the tuition costs at traditional education but most don't have that economic privilege. They have to rely on student loans and less than 20% of lower income students end up finishing their education. That is a lot of wasted potential.
A question to think about is: How much economic growth will go unrealized from students taking less risks in creative pursuits due to the growing stress of higher debt loads or the lack of opportunities for the students who don’t graduate? Instructors often give talks to inspire students to solve the world's problems. But how can anyone expect students to even think about solving problems when many are burdened with paying off their student loans for years or even decades. We hear time and time again that entrepreneurs (and ecopreneurs) are able to create jobs much better than governments, but many of those innovative thinkers are working dead-end jobs to pay back loans instead of creative endeavours and potentially creating successful ventures.
Currently, there are a lot more job openings relating to certain fields such as computer science compared to other degrees. There are countless online tutorials/courses to learn programming, one just needs a computer to practice anywhere and anytime. Writing, accounting, marketing and many more can be taught online. But some fields like bioengineering or health science require labs and expensive equipment. Unlike a computer, these tools and spaces are not readily available. Moreover not everyone wants to be a programmer, writer, accountant, or marketer. So how can people get practical experience in fields like Nursing or Bioengineering outside college/university? Would the Lambda model be just as effective and scalable for these latter careers? This is where local governments and industry can be more helpful by providing access and funding for Makerspaces. These places can be used to train people for specific careers, and perhaps with the new model of education (job-before-tuition). It is an experiment worth trying out because different types of jobs will be lost to automation over the coming years, but that will also create new opportunities. Telling job candidates to go back to university for another four years to upgrade their skills won’t be very effective. This is where lean and efficient schools like Lambda School will really thrive, by training students quickly and effectively, and preparing them for success even in an ever-changing job market.
*A takeaway for educators is that whether a student is going into a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) field or Arts & Social Sciences such as Literature, Performing Arts, Visual Arts, etc., both sets of students should take diverse electives and achieve minimum level of competency outside their domains. Institutions can encourage this practice to produce well-rounded graduates.
Date: December 13, 2018