The following article is excerpted from our book, The Future of School, by Praxis CEO Isaac Morehouse.
College is the dominant path for young people seeking to get into a productive career and fulfilling life. Many who take this path do it without a clear idea what they hope to gain, or what elements they need to achieve success. This kind of thoughtless, meandering approach is incredibly costly and increasingly ineffective. The old yarn that, whatever else you do, go to college and you’ll have a better life, turns out to be false, and at times dangerously so.
There are myriad and complex reasons why college is not the educational and career panacea it’s made out to be. It begins with problems in pre-college education. As previously mentioned, school is intended to provide universal basic skills and knowledge. In its quest to do so, it has become so regimented and programmed that it has shut out genuine confidence gained by experience. It has made learning a tedious chore of rote memorization, and divorced it from the real world of value to the learner. Even with the obsessive focus on basic skills and knowledge, these are often so narrowly defined and politically managed to please all the right constituencies that very little comes of the effort to impart them.
Schools are bad and getting worse at delivering the basics, even by their own somewhat dubious definition of what counts as important. It hardly bears mentioning that K-12 schooling is virtually useless when it comes to building a valuable and diverse network, or getting specialized skills or abstract thinking. Though in fairness it makes little effort to provide these, as college is supposed to pick up at that point.
As a consequence of the uniformly poor educational experiences of most young people, colleges inherit students who are not ready with a tool kit of sound thinking and basic learning skills. Professors cannot begin on the task of teaching abstract thinking or specialized skills because the students don’t have basic reading, writing, or thinking sufficient to handle the necessary material. Understandably, college has moved down the educational chain and become what earlier phases of education are supposed to be; places that provide the most rudimentary skills and knowledge.
College is the new high school.
One result of the downgrade in what colleges teach is that university education has become a baseline indicator of tools needed for career success. If employers want someone who can read, write, and do basic math, anything less than a college degree is just too risky. The information cost of finding good employees is high, and any kind of broad, quick signal that says “this person need not be considered” makes the task less costly. A cyclical relationship has evolved, where the profusion of degrees makes them an easy baseline requirement for businesses, and the demand for degreed employees drives more and more young people to universities, driving the price up faster than any other good or service in the market while the quality is unchanged or even lowered. Of course the degree arms race would not be possible without the web of subsidized loans and other government interventions that permeate the higher education guild.
The higher education establishment is well developed and decades of taxpayer money have created powerful lobbies and vested interests. They don’t want change. They want more students paying higher tuition. The financial incentives offered students, and the easy signal offered employers, are enough to perpetuate the bubble for a while, but clear thinking by prudent purchasers of education might long ago have started producing alternatives. Another key ingredient has kept this inefficient status quo in place far beyond its usefulness: belief.
The powerful propaganda kids are pummeled with from birth is that college is of inestimable value. You go to college, you’re set. If not, good luck flipping burgers. College is the only way to have a decent job. The only way to become a normal adult. The only way to gain broader social experience, or develop a network, or meet a spouse, or become enlightened. (Nevermind that most of these things are explicitly prevented in the K-12 system.) Don’t worry about the cost in dollars or opportunities forgone, just do it and you’ll be on your way to the American dream. Where institutional incentives leave off, cultural narrative picks up the slack, and the ‘everyone must go to college’ myth carries on.
The system is bound for correction, and we see it happening all around. Just step back a moment and unbundle all the things that college is supposed to be. Graduates are walking away with little more basic skill and knowledge than they came in with. They’re more mature, but mostly because most 22 year olds are more mature than most 18 year olds. The networks developed at college tend to be primarily a smallish group of peers. Look around the typical college classroom and ask whether the people at those desks are going to be valuable connections down the road. Outside a few top Ivy League programs, it’s a crap shoot. Abstract or philosophical thinking is the exception, not the rule among graduates, and there is little time or scope to develop specialized skills outside of a few disciplines like the physical sciences. Possibly the greatest non-financial cost is four or more years spent not gaining experience working.
College is often touted as a time where young people can discover what they want to do. I do not discount the immense value of such self-discovery, but I believe that it is almost impossible to discover whether or not you want to be a marketing expert by reading a few textbooks and hearing a few lectures, compared to spending even just a few months working alongside a marketing expert in an enterprise. Being sheltered from commercial life for half a decade, and taught mostly by people who fear or mistrust the market, is an odd way to prepare for a life of fulfilling production and exchange.
At one time, higher education was almost the only way to gain abstract thinking skills and high level knowledge. In recent years, it has become almost the only way to obtain a signal of your employability. But that world is changing. Access to the best minds in the world is free and ubiquitous with the advent of online education. More and more employers – and the most interesting and dynamic – are ignoring degrees as a hiring criteria, and looking for those who distinguish themselves.
Furthermore, entrepreneurial behavior is fast becoming more highly valued, whether you want to actually start a business or work within an existing enterprise. The qualities that make an entrepreneur turn out to be the very things the education system beats down or screens out. The traditional model rewards conformity, sticking to someone else’s plan, and complying with preset rules, but the market is rewarding mold-breakers. Something’s gotta give.
Want a free PDF copy? You can download The Future of School here! The book includes…
Chapter One: The Ideal
Chapter Two: The Reality of Today’s Education System
Chapter Three: My Story
Chapter Four: How Change Happens
Chapter Five: Alternatives to the Current System
Chapter Seven: How You Can Take Charge of Your Career and Education
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Isaac Morehouse is an entrepreneur, thinker, and communicator dedicated to the relentless pursuit of freedom. He is the founder and CEO of Praxis (www.discoverpraxis.com), an intensive ten-month program combining real world business experience with the best of online education for those who want more than college.