The Beginning of the End of Traditional Higher Education

A few weeks from now I will don cap and gown and receive my Master's degree in Fine Arts from the venerable Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, WA. The last time I wore that getup was 1978, at the University of Colorado in Boulder, when the cap barely fit over my blonde 'fro. Now, 37 years hence, that mortarboard will slide over my thinning gray locks without obstruction. Luckily, my BS in Education and my low-residency MFA were earned without the need for any significant financial aid or the ubiquitous student loans that have become the bane of American higher education and now threaten to bring the whole traditional system down for good.

Back in 2009, Forbes published an article entitled "The Great College Hoax." In it, author Kathy Kristof speaks of "an unfolding education hoax on the middle class that's just as insidious, and nearly as sweeping, as the housing debacle [of 2008]. The ingredients are strikingly similar, too: Misguided easy-money policies that are encouraging the masses to go into debt; a self-serving establishment trading in half-truths that exaggerate the value of its product; plus a Wall Street money machine dabbling in outright fraud as it foists unaffordable debt on the most vulnerable marks." Given the current data, we might assume that the bait has been taken, hook, line and sinker.

Since I graduated from CU in 1978, tuitions have risen 440 percent, four times faster than the cost of living. Student-loan debt is now higher than credit card debt in the U.S. for the first time in history, totaling nearly $1.4 trillion. At the same time, a 2011 study by the Pew Research Center found that "A majority of Americans (57%) say the higher education system in the United States fails to provide students with good value for the money they and their families spend. An even larger majority--75%--says college is too expensive for most Americans to afford." Today, the average undergraduate is saddled with $30K of student loan debt.

In a society where it's become obvious that a traditional undergraduate degree is nothing more than a ticket to an overcrowded white collar job market, and where it's equally obvious that undergraduate-level critical thinking skills are worthless in the age of instant online answers to everything, why do so many continue to risk lifelong indebtedness for a diploma? Has a traditional college education become an anachronism in the digital age?

According to The Economist, even though the traditional institutions are currently thriving, there are some significant cracks beginning to develop.

First, traditional four-year institutions have been slow to admit that the digital age has fundamentally changed the way people learn, retain and use information. Up until the advent of the World Wide Web and, more recently, online education and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), academic teaching was pretty much limited to the classroom and had been for hundreds of years. Students read books, attended boring lectures, participated in labs, took notes, wrote term papers, and, at the end of every course, regurgitated what they had learned. The smartest working students were ultimately the ones who figured out how to get maximum impact with minimum effort while maintaining a respectable GPA. Most of us are more likely to remember a particular football game, a concert, a party, a prank (streaking was popular in the early seventies - who could forget that?), than we are to remember anything from Paradise Lost or the War of 1812.

In 1973, the perceived value of a college education was more about the experience, and less about the degree. To put a finer point on it, an undergraduate degree in history or philosophy or even applied mathematics was just as worthless on the job market then as it is today. Only back then we didn't have to mortgage our futures to get a diploma.

Today, with the cost of tuition increasing 440 percent since my college years, only the most affluent are able to see a traditional four-year college as the "experience" it was intended to be. On top of that, knowledge is more available, and instantly accessible, to anyone with a computer or smartphone. Cheap online degrees abound, making it far more practical to earn a diploma while raising a family or working full time. Vocational schools and community colleges can provide the training required for many professions. So if the motivation for seeking an undergraduate degree is solely to qualify for a particular line of work, there are new, affordable and flexible alternatives cropping up every day. It shouldn't be long before the current trend of degree inflation evolves into an entirely different set of experience requirements for jobseekers. Those employers that continue to insist on a four-year college diploma, or even a graduate degree, will be overlooking those candidates that have availed themselves of a 21st century education and have demonstrated the digital resourcefulness required of 21st century jobs. It is only a matter of time before the old guard retires and the ranks of business leaders become populated with those that have side-stepped the four-year college degree and attained their credentials via alternative sources of education.

It's already quite clear that a well-rounded classroom education is about as useful, and relevant, in American society as the Viennese waltz. Once employers start seeing qualified candidates with alternative educational backgrounds, the ability of the four-year colleges to hold students hostage to increasingly worthless degrees will gradually weaken. Then, the traditional academic institutions can choose to evolve or perish.