Will The University Become Extinct?

These days it seems trendy to question the necessity of a university education. Blogs, articles, even documentaries, are popping up all over the place which offer up alternatives to college. But, is skipping out on college the right thing to do? Is university really even the problem? Perhaps, perhaps not. The real problem may be what we demand of our colleges and universities.

There is no question that student debt, especially in America, is getting way out of hand. Attending New York University as an English undergraduate can easily cost you over 40K in tuition alone, add in some food and a roof over your head and you are looking back on 70K. That's nuts. $300,000 for an undergraduate degree in English literature? Even if the degree is in science, or something more "applied", that is some serious debt to contend with after graduation. This is problem number one: cost of tuition.

Some recent studies have shown that fewer than 40% of students are graduating from four year degrees on time. Large numbers of students are requiring six and even eight years to complete their degrees and, of course, a significant number never finish at all. This is problem number two: time required to graduate.

Perhaps the most frustrating of all is the over-specialization of the university experience, which has emerged over the past couple of decades. You don't go to university anymore to become simply "educated", rather you go to acquire a "credential" in a given field or, more specifically, a given job. Why is this a problem? The main issue with this approach is that student X goes to school to become a museum worker and therefore follows a Master of Museum Studies program. When student X leaves university with her degree she finds that there are no jobs in her field (museums) and she is left to try and reinvent herself with this highly specialized (and perhaps pointless in the first place) degree. Student X has not really emerged into the world as a bright, educated girl, so much as a credentialed (and unemployed) museum worker.

For many decades, even centuries, the university was a place to become educated -- to liberate the mind. Work was a place to become trained. That is, you got a degree in the liberal arts (which enabled you to think critically, read and write well, and understand much of what the world is about) and then you went and applied for jobs which required smart people -- such as museum work. When hired, the museum trained you to function as a museum worker and, because you were an educated (read smart) person this wasn't a problem. When the museum work dried up, you moved on to a new job, perhaps in another field altogether, which was not a problem because you were a smart, well-rounded, educated person who could think on your feet and easily learn new things.

Today, it's not like this anymore. Today, you gamble. At the tender age of eighteen you make a stab in the dark at what you think you might like to do with your life (such as become a physio therapist, for example) and then you go to a college or university and you acquire a credential that says you can perform the duties of a particular job or vocation. Once that's done, you gamble again by venturing out into the workforce with the hopes that there is a job opening in this very specific niche for which you trained. The whole thing is akin to waiting for the stars to align. The result is that we have 7 million unfilled jobs in the US and nearly 2 million recent graduates without work. Why? Could it be that the stars are just not aligning? Problem number three: Too many students graduating in the US today are credentialed, not educated.

Because of this seemingly dire situation, many new high school graduates are calling it quits on their academic careers before ever setting foot in a college. This new trend is sometimes referred to as "hacking your education," and there are a number of books and websites dedicated to it. But is not going to college really the answer? I say no, it's not. Educated people (and by this I mean broadly and liberally educated) are essential to a healthy and functional democracy. Perhaps much of this mess we are in has come about precisely because of the steady decline over the decades in liberal education -- too many people making too many decisions with too little education. Sure, they might be well-trained (degrees in accounting or law, for example) but that is not the equivalent of well-educated in the truest sense of that concept.

Do we need to address college tuition? Absolutely. Something must be done to make education affordable and there is lots that can be done. Colleges and universities should not operate like corporations. University presidents do not need to be paid millions of dollars -- there are lots of "smart people" who will fill the post for a decent low six figure salary. Hire them. Do universities need state-of-the-art facilities? No. Look at countries where education is more affordable and state sponsored -- no fancy facilities because they cannot afford them. Yet, some of the best education in the world. Do we need to address the reasons why it is taking kids eight years to complete a four year degree? Absolutely. But the answer to these problems should not be to merely throw up our hands and "hack" our education, which means no education at all. Again, don't confuse training with education. I have no doubt that kids today can train outside of the university and gain meaningful employment -- indeed, that is what I am proposing -- that training not be done in the academy. However, this is not going to replace an "education".

Universities and colleges need to return to their roots. Going to college should be about educating yourself - freeing the mind - while finding yourself. Your chosen field of study should be made in the broadest of terms -- liberal arts, pure sciences, business etc. One should not have to decide to pursue forensic accounting, museum studies, or human resources development at the age of eighteen. Furthermore, one should not even have to attend a university for many of these specialized jobs. A well-educated business student should be able to go out into the world of business and move about within that world -- learning and retraining for new positions as they arise within the workplace. He will do this with ease because he was given a sold well-rounded, quality business education at the university. He will maneuver the ever-changing job market because he is a smart person. Exactly the way things were done for centuries before all this mess.

So then, the real problem, as I see it, is that universities are not really educating anyone -- they are merely credentialing, and doing this at enormous cost to both the students and themselves. Furthermore, these credentials are a guarantee of nothing, at best, and unemployment at worst. The machine is broken. But, before we throw the baby out with the bathwater, we should take a serious look at post-secondary education, and the workings of the economy, and see how we can better realign this whole experience. Perhaps we can align the stars after all.

I say a good solid and broad education from a good top-tier university is still the best preparation not only for your working life, but your life in general. Don't get a credential, get an education. Go forth with knowledge rather than mere know-how. Solution: Demand that your college educate you and that your employer train you. That's how we're are going to untangle this mess which threatens to produce a whole generation of uneducated, unemployed, over-credentialed and disillusioned Americans. Despite the trendiness of "hacking" your education, I'm afraid the university is here to stay. We best learn how to make it truly benefit us.

Michael Ernest Sweet is a Canadian award-winning writer and photographer. The author of two art monographs and countless articles, essays, and poems, Michael is currently a graduate student at The Johns Hopkins University.