What Is Education For?

I was talking about the future of education over lunch the other day and what it will look like over the next ten years. My friend’s commented that higher education essentially serves the role of getting you your first job. That is its function – you graduate college, and are then expected to apply what you’ve learned in a job you’ve been trained for. After that first job, potential employers are no longer concerned with where you went to school or what your grades are  – instead, they are interested in what you did at your last job. I think this is a brilliant way to look at things, and it is supported by the fact that college grads and high school grads face similar levels of unemployment after being out of work for a year.

Most people right now look at college as a requirement for success in this world. As Peter Thiel remarks (in a fantastic article, well worth the read):

There’s a wide public buy-in that leads to a product being overvalued because it’s linked to future expectations that are unrealistic. Education is similar to the tech bubble of the late 1990s, which assumed crazy growth in businesses that didn’t pan out. The education bubble is predicated on the idea that the education provided is incredibly valuable. In many cases that’s just not true. Here and elsewhere people have avoided facing the fact of stagnation by telling themselves stories about familiar things leading to progress. One fake vector of progress is credentialing—first the undergraduate degree, then more advanced degrees. Like the others, it’s an avoidance mechanism.  

I tend to agree with him. When you look at college as serving the function of getting that first job, it allows you to think of other ways to achieve that end without graduating. For example, rather than spend $80k to get an undergraduate degree, why not work for free with the explicit goal of learning something. This idea of an apprenticeship has been around since the Middle Ages, when young students would spend years learning from a master craftsman. Working for little more than food and lodging, they would learn the trade from those who had mastered it. This set them up for success, and actually is still around today. Germany’s dual-track education system, where students learn from classes while also engaging in an apprentice program, has been extremely effective and could be a reason for their strong economic status. In the US, working for free, taking small projects right out of high school, etc are all ways that someone could get a first job without going through college. When looking at school through this framework, it becomes a means to an end rather than a requirement.

This has been less of an issue over the past 80 years. When colleges were doing their jobs, tuition costs were manageable and the economy was cooperating, graduates had an easy time landing jobs after school. However, this has shifted over the last 10 years. Last July, the employment rate for 16-24 year olds was under 50%, the lowest record in US history. I realize this accounts for high school students as well, but the fact is that most of America’s youth are unemployed. A large part of this is the economy, but education is also a significant factor.

As a society, the burden of educating the youth has been the domain of universities for decades. What I think we’re about to see now is a shift away from universities and towards employers educating potential employees. Take examples like Hungry Academy, a program run by Living Social that hires people who have no programming skills and trains them over 6 months to become software engineers.  Another example of this shift occurs with apprentice.io – more and more, companies and other organizations are taking the responsbility of educating their future employees. As we have seen, more credentialing (ex: a Ph.D. in women’s studies) does not necessarily translate to work.

My dad is very successful and has interviewed several recent graduates for positions. He mentioned that most of the kids just don’t have it together – hiring them would involve tons of retraining and time just to get them to an acceptable level of competence. If after 4 years you haven’t learned basic skills, something has gone wrong with your education.

Ryan Holiday had a good quote on the subject (about a recent book The Education of Millionaires) – “I would take his book as a strong warning: every day you spend in school wasting your time, there is someone like me (or the people he talks about in his book) out there actually learning the things you learn. When you meet those people, they will be smarter than you and they will not be saddled with bad habits and six figures of credit card debt”. In too many cases he’s right. I think universities will soon be forced to focus on the things they provide that you can’t get online – fostering an intellectual community of smart individuals, mentorship from professors and successful alumni, and interaction with other smart classmates. The social factor is something online learning will have a hard time doing. Who knows? Maybe within 10 years, universities will be proud of their reputation as a social haven.

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  • Great post and so true about a college degree.  So much has already been written about high paying jobs that go unfilled because people lack the required skills.  Many of those skills are learned best in an apprentice-type arrangement.

    And I may be old fashioned, but I believe that the predominance of social media, video games and the sound-bite media has eroded the critical thinking, interpersonal and communication skills of much of todays youth.  Colleges are supposed to further develop those core skills but are failing.  In many cases, they merely credential.  Perhaps the current state is also an endictment on our overall education system, starting with elementary school.