It’s time for a smarter (and cheaper) sheepskin

High-tech start-ups are retooling college instruction, writes venture capitalist Reid Hoffman, co-founder of LinkedIn, in The New Republic. We need to “make certification faster, cheaper and more effective too,” he writes.

. . . a diploma is essentially a communications device that signals a person’s readiness for certain jobs.

But unfortunately it’s a dumb, static communication device with roots in the 12th century.

We need to . . .  turn it into a richer, updateable, more connected record of a person’s skills, expertise, and experience. And then we need to take that record and make it part of a fully networked certification platform.

There’s a lot more to college than earning a diploma, responds Michael Gibson, who works for the anti-college Thief Foundation, in Forbes. To lower the debt to party ratio, we need to consider “all the friendships formed at school, the esprit de campus, all the networks.” What about beer pong?

College consists of: the clock tower, the stadium, the frat/sorority house and the admissions office, Gibson writes.

Taken together this is like an awful cable TV package. To get HBO, you also need to pay high prices for all those unwatchable stations like the Hallmark Channel. The future of higher education will involve unbundling this package and offering cheaper, higher quality substitutes.

The clock tower represents the amount of time spent studying a subject.

 Classes are measured in hours per week; exams are given in hour length chunks; and students need some requisite number of hours in any subject to signal mastery. It is remarkable that we still use the hour as a substitute measure for learning to this day.

. . .  we are on the cusp of having the technology to unbundle and decentralize this piece of the college puzzle. Coursera, Udacity, and other massively open online courses are only getting started in their effort to demolish the clock tower and provide the customized certification Reid Hoffman describes. What the fireplace, another medieval invention, is to the cold, the clock tower is to learning: proximity used to matter. And now it doesn’t. Central heating is better.

The stadium represents the tribal experience, which is very important to alumni. The frat house represents the friendships that lead to future networking. The admissions office confers status. These will be harder to replace than the clock tower, writes Gibson.

In the near future, the residential college experience will become a luxury item, I predict. Most people will decide it makes more sense to hang out with their friends, play beer pong, root for a professional football team and earn a low-cost career credential.

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  1. Stacy in NJ says:

    It’s like buying a car. Everyone would probably enjoy the experience and cache of driving a BMW or Lexus. It’s enjoyable and creates the illusion of affluence, but buying it can also be counter-productive and lead to financial ruin if you don’t have the income to support the payment. A Hyundai with a 100,000 mile warranty will be just as reliable and much more affordable. It won’t provide the same social signal, but encouraging kids without the financial backup to invest in an overpriced and under performing vehicle so they have a more preferred signal is irresponsible. The BMW will still be available to them later, once they’ve built the social/financial capital base.

  2. Mike in Texas says:

    Sure thing, Reid. Let’s fast track some doctors and let them operate on you.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      Right. Because doctors are the only professionals in the world. Let’s draw a straight line from the premise (more efficient skills training) to a faulty conclusion (DOCTORS!!!!!!). Try a bit of subtlety next time, Tex.

    • Do medical schools in the rest of the developed world require a bachelor’s degree for admission? If not, what studies show that they have a lower qualify of physicians that the United States?

      • Wiki says that in the UK, you enter medical school right out of high school, but that the med school program takes five or six years.
        FYI, law in Sweden works similarly: enter right out of high school and graduate in five years.

    • The proposal isn’t to “fast track”, but to replace seat time with rigorous exams. In many respects this is MORE like medical school: high grades won’t save you if you flunk your board exams.

      • In former Soviet Union all higher ed school were 5 years except for medical – 6 (including interning -hospital practice). All right out of grade (high)school. Or after junior college if students completed only 8 years of grade school. But in any case, entrance examinations in main subjects for the chosen major were required for admission. Medical school required biology, chemistry, and math (everything covered in all years of grade school). A history major would take examinations in world history, history of the motherland, and Russian literature exam. And so on.Those who did not make the cut score would not be admitted and lose a year. No review or basic subjects is given in higher ed. Medical students do not review or take general bio, or general chem.
        The idea is (and Europe, I believe, uses it) that higher education KNOWS exactly WHAT hs grads should have studied and no review/remediation is given.

        If american colleges could allow students to test out of general subjects that would be great.

        • Regarding the five years for college … Soviet kids graduated from high school a year earlier than their American counterparts, right? 10 years through high school vs 12 for Americans, but started a year later (so graduated a year earlier). So 5 years in college has them graduating at the same age (22) as their American counterparts. Right?

          • That’s correct, Mark. There was a “zero” grade – like K here, but it was not mandatory. Daycare centers were also providing prep work for school. I never attended daycare or “zero” grade, and started school at 6, graduated at 16, and received my DVM at 21. Also, one could no go to higher ed after 35 as a day-form student. So all career decisions were to be made earlier.
            Now, I think they do 11 years of grade school, 4 years of higher ed (bachelors) with the most promising students staying for year 5 (masters). I am not sure that works for all majors though… In vet school after year four, what are you – a tech? That’s 2 years after 8th grade… (now after 9th).

            I also went to college in US… And I teach HS. Too many electives, andd not enough “meat” in my opinion. That could save a year…

        • Richard Aubrey says:

          Among other things, Gibson makes some great metaphors/similes/analogies/whatever.
          Did it the traditional way, but with some caveats:
          Don’t care about the old U’s athletics. The frat house networking was pretty much upset by a war. One exception is that three fraters got to flying the same KC135 in SEA, but one of them was the son of an AF colonel, so that might have been networking of a type.
          I can’t say seat time was a waste, except that the instructor always has to deal with others’ issues that I don’t have and vice versa. Clarifying something I know, clarifying for me what others already know, and so forth. Internal waste of time. Not sure sitting through open classroom lectures will be different from the say, 500-person intro to econ class I had.
          Did some math recently. Figured I could have paid my room and board with a ten-week, forty-hour job at minimum wage at the time, or a fifteen-hour per week part-time job at min wage during the school year. Not sure the same is true today. Don’t recall tuition, but it’s possible that doing both, part-time during the year and full-time in the summer, might have come close to covering the year. Guaranteed that won’t happen now.
          Just for grins, I recall the quarter, twelve weeks including registration and finals, cost $270 for room and board. I wasn’t cost-free living at home and I would like to know how much more, net, I cost at school.
          Get my own place, with roommates? Not free.
          So this sounds good and probably is, but a bit of oversell.
          I expect the main saving will be in the tuition.