Is higher education too big to fail?

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My parents and many of their generation who didn’t get the advantages of higher education, see it as immensely important and would point to the credibility it offers. Does that mean they necessarily agree with me and my ‘educated outlook’ on the issues I studied? Does it heck. I probably don’t value my education as much as other people do. So does that mean that higher education is too big to fail?  

Although we don’t have the fees of colleges in America, students who stay in the UK or Ireland do pay a significant amount towards their education. Yes, my education may have a theoretical value but in reality, do I value the certification? I did benefit from education – mostly the extra curricular fields. The question has to be, would I be more or less capable had I spent those years in employment learning real work business skills. Many of our economic leaders had no formal training. At the moment, I know I certainly would be better off financially had I 7 years of earnings rather than 7 years of paying to learn. That said, it can be argued that the true value of my qualifications will be telling over time. I’m not sure my unemployed classmates would be happy to wait too long.

Looking back, its hard to deny that one or two people who chose ‘professional’ careers but sought them by not to going to University (opting instead for apprenticeships, training and professional time served) have done as well or even better in terms of career progression. Higher education is much like the old Unions and professional associations. Each placing value on their own training and only accepting those with the same standard. However, it may be difficult to deny when some reach a comparable standard. In the future, will a lack of higher education really continue to be a glass ceiling?

Third level education is part of our standard societal dream, offering a chance at social advancement and the potential for a high return on investment. In much the same way, the sub-prime crisis saw brokers financing home sales in the belief that assets could only appreciate. How is this different to higher education where colleges seek students who will borrow vast sums to pay tuition in exchange for degrees that are thought to be like homes—assets that will always appreciate in value.

Peter Thiel calls education a “bubble,” and pays bright students to drop out of college through the “20 Under 20 Fellowship”.  Although investment in college education has historically been a smart bet, in the same way investment models didn’t accommodate for potential price falls, the belief that the value of a college degree will always appreciate must be flawed. And, if the value placed on the parchment stagnates while its associated price soars, our higher education system will become unsustainable.  

This brings us back to the well rehearsed debate on the point or purpose of higher learning. Some are going so far as to claim that some university degrees already lead to a negative return on investment. Are we developing knowledge? skills? workers? Why encourage (and state sponsor) humanities degrees when the economy needs more doctors, mathematicians and technologists

While the cost of college continues to rise, with larger lecture theatres, multimedia environments and highly trained staff, the real “cost” of learning is being dramatically reduced. Advanced education can now come in many forms and is often decoupled from traditional seats of higher education. Professional institutions, training centres and online facilities such as the Open University or iTunes U can impart ‘wisdom’ and certification often for a fraction of the cost where credentials sought by employers can even, to a point, be earned with community and peer services like Stack Overflow or Github.

Though the academic community might dismiss these potentially disruptive innovations, the key test will be as the markets change. Already the labor market has also begun to accept that those without advanced accreditation can advance within their careers. This is most notable in the growing technology field – an area that is frequently argued to be under-served by our educators and students.

Credentials are a game based on perceived value. No one wants to go the way of music executives and newspaper moguls – where the value of their offering diminished. As the markets have begun to swing now must be the time for Presidents, Governors and Directors to act.

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