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Top Ed-Tech Trends of 2011: The Higher Education Bubble

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Part 8 of my Top Ed-Tech Trends Series

To Uncollege

One of the most interesting people I met this year was Dale Stephens. Dale is just 19, but he’s an incredibly intelligent and poised young man.

Dale is a college dropout.

He is also a world traveler, a speaker, a Thiel Foundation scholar, and a soon-to-be Penguin author. Dale has been outspoken this year about his dissatisfaction with college, writing and talking about his decision to drop-out, and his focus instead on self-education, self-actualization, and entrepreneurship. As such, Dale’s become a strong voice for some of those his age questioning whether a college degree is really worth it.

I first met Dale back in February when he was still a student at Hendrix College in Arkansas. Back then he told me about his plans to start Uncollege, which just as the name suggests, would help support students who wanted to pursue alternate education paths, outside the traditional college degree.

Having grown up home schooled (and unschooled), this wasn’t Dale’s first venture into constructing a personal learning experience. But the bigger challenge no doubt: helping translate that to others.

Then in May, Dale received $100,000 from PayPal co-funder Peter Thiel as part of the Thiel Foundation’s “20 Under 20” Fellowship — $100,000 to drop out of school. The rest, as they say, is history.

Peter Thiel’s Higher Education Bubble

It was a simple opening sentence to one of the most-read articles in the tech industry this year. Simple and true: “Fair warning: This article will piss off a lot of you.”

So began Techcrunch’s Sarah Lacy in her April interview with Peter Thiel. Sidestepping the talk of housing bubbles and investment bubbles, Thiel pronounced a “higher education bubble”:

“A true bubble is when something is overvalued and intensely believed,” he says. “Education may be the only thing people still believe in in the United States. To question education is really dangerous. It is the absolute taboo. It’s like telling the world there’s no Santa Claus.”

Like the housing bubble, the education bubble is about security and insurance against the future. Both whisper a seductive promise into the ears of worried Americans: Do this and you will be safe.The excesses of both were always excused by a core national belief that no matter what happens in the world, these were the best investments you could make. Housing prices would always go up, and you will always make more money if you are college educated.

Like any good bubble, this belief– while rooted in truth– gets pushed to unhealthy levels. Thiel talks about consumption masquerading as investment during the housing bubble, as people would take out speculative interest-only loans to get a bigger house with a pool and tell themselves they were being frugal and saving for retirement. Similarly, the idea that attending Harvard is all about learning? Yeah. No one pays a quarter of a million dollars just to read Chaucer. The implicit promise is that you work hard to get there, and then you are set for life. It can lead to an unhealthy sense of entitlement. “It’s what you’ve been told all your life, and it’s how schools rationalize a quarter of a million dollars in debt,” Thiel says.

As part of his critique of higher ed, Thiel formed the “20 Under 20″ program, paying 20 students under the age of 20 to drop out of school, giving them $100,000 over the course of 2 years to do so.

The Dropout Success Story

Both Thiel’s narrative and his fellowship program are a nod to a powerful piece of Silicon Valley mythology: drop out of college, build your own business, be wildly successful. You know the story. Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates — Harvard drop-outs. Billionaires. (Thiel’s a billionaire too, one with with a Stanford Law degree for what it’s worth).

It was a particularly powerful story in 2011 as the technology industry was hot. I mean red hot. I mean, millions-of-dollars-in-investment-for-your-great-new-social-mobile-local-app hot. Drop out of college, build your own business, be wildly successful.

Thiel’s argument is that the price-tag of a degree (particularly an Ivy League degree — one from Harvard or Stanford) has become too high, the debt students saddled with too much, the opportunity cost — particularly for entrepreneurs — too great. Drop out of college, build your own business, be wildly successful.

The Other Kids

I’ve only met 2 of the Thiel fellows: Dale and Andrew Hsu (CEO and co-founder of the educational gaming company Airy Labs). And I can say with full confidence that these 2 would be wildly successful with or without college degrees, with or without Thiel’s money.

But what about the rest of the college-age crowd?

It’s important to remember here, of course, that just 70% of U.S. students even graduate from high school. So before we worry too much about “excess education,” we should start there. Indeed, despite all the talk of overselling the college dream and murmurs of a higher education bubble, just 29% of Americans have four-year degrees. (The rates are far lower for Blacks and Hispanics: 17% and 13% respectively.) And despite questions about whether or not a college degree is “worth it,” statistics still show that those with college degrees earn more. As the country suffers this latest economic recession, it’s worth pointing out too that those with college degrees have lower unemployment rates than those without.

I’ve seen this firsthand with my 18 year-old son. Unfocused, he’s not really sure what he wants to do with his life. Unskilled and unexperienced, he can’t find a job. He says he’ll attend the local community college next term.  But he’s not sure.  Depends on the financial aid offer.

So I admit: I immediately disliked Thiel’s plans when I heard them announced at Techcrunch Disrupt last year. It’s not that I’m upset by the idea of dropping out of school. (Dale Stephens would vouch for me here, I think.) I’ve dropped out of school three times myself (from high school, college, and finally… FINALLY! from a PhD program). And I’ve urged my son to be extremely cautious about student loan debt.

See, I believe that when you give someone — anyone really — but particularly someone under 20 a big chunk of cash to do something, it’s a weird power play. It’s a weird power play from a parent, I should add. It’s a weird power play from an investor. It’s a weird power play from the student loan industry (that means it’s a weird power play from the government and from higher ed institutions). Ahh, student loans…

DIY Higher Ed

There’s the argument, of course, that there’s never been a better time to be a DIY learner. Who needs school, right?  There’s an abundance of free and low-cost Internet resources, including plenty provided by universities themselves. MIT Opencourseware had its 10th anniversary this year, and Stanford made headlines by extending some of its engineering classes massively online — some 35,000 took its Artificial Intelligence course. (There were fewer headlines when others offered MOOCs, but there ya go.) Educational resources from outside academia — online and face-to-face, free and paid — are growing too, as I have chronicled in other recent trends posts: Khan Academy, P2PU, Skillshare and so on.

The idea that a university education might not be worthwhile is particularly compelling in the tech industry — and not just due to the drop-out success story.  Technology changes rapidly.  Curriculum, not so much.

But even with all these new learning opportunities, there’s still that nagging question of credentialling.

How do you demonstrate to others the skills learned in these informal settings? How do you do so in culture that still values the college diploma very highly? What social signals do employers (and banks and investors and voters and so on) read? Does having a degree (or not having a degree) matter based on race, class, gender, nationality, age?

(And sorry but I can’t help pointing out here the social signals Thiel used when picking his $100,000 fellows: most came from Ivy League Schools (in other words, it’s not the graduating from Harvard that matters, it’s the getting in). Several already had their Bachelors and were working on advanced degrees. Just two were women.)

Open Badges

Mozilla‘s Open Badges project, formally unveiled this fall, hopes to provide another alternative way to demonstrate skills and offer credentials of sorts. The idea behind the project: anyone will be able to issue, earn and/or display a badge demonstrating some sort of skill. That’s broad, yes, and deliberately so.  Mozilla has built the open technology infrastructure to support the system, and the DML Competition has asked people begin to design the types of badges they’d like to see recognize “lifelong learning.”

Some folks have balked at the idea of badges (gamification of education, anyone?). But as HASTAC’s Cathy Davidson argues, it’s an opportunity to rethink we track accomplishments and accreditation.

Individuals can earn badges from multiple organizations, some certifying human skills such as collaboration or even helpfulness, that mean as much to future employers as skills and experience and credentials from traditional institutions. And an individual can choose to reveal or not reveal an e-portfolio. YOU own your portfolio. These are badges, designed to record and inspire learning and collaboration, and so ownership is key. Yesterday, I heard about (and want to learn more) of a system used among goat herders and mechanics in Africa, where badges on their cell phones certified quality of product, fair exchange, honesty, and innovation in a migrant situation where credibility is key and hard to measure. This is key because no one wants a new form of credentialing that replicates the hierarchies of traditional accreditation. The point is to thing big, think new, think change.

Our current, standardized systems of credentialing are very rigid and often restrictive. Badges allow groups of people—organizations and institutions–to decide what counts for them and how they want to give credit. Every contribution isn’t measured by ABCD. If you contribute, you can have a record of that contribution. That’s the beauty of digital badge systems or eportfolios such as Top Coders where you can actually click on the badge and see all the specific contributions or skills of a person that were recognized by peers in the form of a badge. A badge is a visual symbol. In the best online badging systems, that emblem then opens up a full array of contribution.

I covered the Open Badges project a lot this year — for O’Reilly Radar, for MindShift, for Inside Higher Ed, for Hack Education). I think it’s an exciting project, not because it offers The Answer to a “higher education bubble,” but because I think it’s going to prompt a lot of important discussions about what we mean when we talk about what counts as learning.  Education has never just happened in the classroom.  And the Internet is making it incredibly apparent that the institutions that have long controlled education (content, curriculum, and credentialing) may not hold that monopoly for long.

What is the Purpose of (Higher) Education?

So what about that higher education bubble?  What about the promise of opportunity and advancement that comes with a college degree?  What about the intellectual demands of university life?  What are students learning?  What should they learn?  What degree programs should schools keep or ax when there are fiscal (and perceptual) constraints?  Why does a degree cost so damn much?  WTF is up with the college athletics?  How are record-breaking levels of student loan debt hampering innovation and opportunities?

What happens when the economy goes to shit, and the bubble — the housing bubble, the investment bubble, the education bubble — bursts?

In 2011, the student bodies spill out into the streets, demanding cheaper tuition, better job opportunities, student loan relief, social and economic justice — and not just for those most exceptional students — the ones that rich Silicon Valley investors are willing to fund — but for everyone.

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