College is Overrated

by mikekarnj on November 10, 2010

A couple months ago, I wrote an article titled “College, Inc” which shed a light on the inevitable student loan crisis, and the collective action we can do to prevent it from happening. As a follow-up, I’ll share my view about why higher education is overrated and why documentaries like Waiting for Superman are pushing the wrong views of education.

Ben Casnocha recently wrote an article about what 17 million Americans got from a college degree. Not surprisingly, some 17M Americans with college degrees are doing jobs that require less than the skill levels associated with a bachelor’s degree. “For hundreds of thousands of Americans, spending four years and untold amounts of money (and debt?) gets you a job as a waiter, parking lot attendant, or janitor. Yet everyone from Barack Obama to Bill Gates keep pushing a college education as the way to secure one’s economic future. That is a view that should be heavily qualified.”

Richard Vedder from The Chronicle of Higher Education digs a little deeper and debunks the myth that a college education will result in higher paying returns. “In other words, the stats have always been skewed for certain subgroups – particularly relatively disadvantaged groups with low education outcomes — are higher than the average marginal returns to education in the population as a whole.”

This is the fundamental problem with documentaries like Waiting for Superman and organizations like Teach for America. They are focused on a small subgroup of the entire education system in the US. But here’s the reality: not everyone will attend Harvard. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 18.2 million students enrolled in college in 2007. Harvard only enrolls 20,000 students per year and the rest of the top notch schools can only fit in so many students. So, where do the majority of students receive their higher education? Mostly from community colleges and non-prestigious four-year colleges. So, this makes one ask: what’s the value of a degree from college? A job as a waiter?

And here’s the icing on the cake from the Project on Student Debt. “College seniors who graduated in 2009 carried an average of $24,000 in student loan debt. Meanwhile, unemployment for recent college graduates climbed from 5.8% in 2008 to 8.7% in 2009 – the highest annual rate on record for college graduates aged 20 to 24.” And as you already know, college education is the next bubble set to burst.

College is completely overrated. We need to debunk the myth that a college degree leads to success. It doesn’t lead to a higher salary or better career. The pinnacle of education should not be college, it should revolve around learning and gaining new skills and knowledge.

Some innovative leaders like Peter Thiel (you’ll know him from The Social Network) are taking matters into their own hands. Peter Thiel is paying students to quit college. “The Thiel Fellowship will pay would-be entrepreneurs under 20 $100,000 in cash to drop out of school. His scholarships are meant as an escape hatch from these insufficiently capitalist institutions of higher learning.”

Peter Thiel’s idea is a great one but I think there’s an even easier scalable solution. We need to go back to the true goal of education: learning new skills. The grievously undervalued human capital issue here isn’t quality education in school but quality of skills in markets. This is the basic premise behind the edupunk movement: learning new skills that result from a DIY attitude. And the idea behind our startup, Skillshare, which is a platform to learn anything from anyone.

Instead of looking at where students got their degree or their GPA, we need to start looking at their real-world experience, and the skills they’ve developed. Why hire a student with a degree in “marketing” when their real education is about to start? Like Sir Ken Robinson says, “we have to think differently about human capacity” in order to change education. It starts by debunking the myth that higher education is an indicator of success, and focus on what matters the most: doing shit.

Want to do something about the higher education problem? Support our Kickstarter project! We’re creating an animation video titled “College, Inc” which will spread awareness about the student loan crisis, reframe the country’s views of higher education and start a dialogue about how we can solve the problem. Your donation will help inform, and, hopefully reform higher education.

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