There’s been a lot of talk lately about the rising cost of education. Public college tuition keeps rising 2-3% faster than inflation, and many young people view education as a sort of Intellectual Medicare that should be available to all who want it, regardless of cost. At the same time, self made men like Mark Steyn are a rarity. Is education getting out of reach?
Not at all. The problem is separating “education” from formal education or credentialism. If all you want is information and educational resources, education has never been cheaper or more accessible. Type “partial differential equations” into YouTube and see what you come up with; you’ll have access to hundreds of videos from professors and laymen, many who compete for viewers with the perfect explanation and illustration of separation of variables. MIT was one of the first schools to put much of its course resources online with its OpenCourseWare, and Stanford’s engineering department is doing the same (Stanford Comp. Sci. prof. Mehran Sahami is better than any professor I had in college, and his Programming Methodology videos have 100,000 + views). I actually prefer online classes to live classes, since I can slow the video if I get lost or need time to think about something.
It isn’t limited to YouTube videos and Wikipedia. You can go on Amazon and eBay and find old editions of textbooks for less than $10. I was only homeschooled for a year or so, but from talking with the parents of homeschooled kids, resources keep getting better and better every year. The bottom line is: if you have access to a computer and internet connection, and all you want is educational resources, things have never been better.
There still is something to credentialism. Many jobs require some sort of college degree, and “I read a textbook in my free time” probably won’t get you far with the check box approach of human resources departments. I think a partial solution, and one discussed a bit in Charles Murray’s Real Education, is qualification tests (the link takes you to the relevant section on Google books). Currently four states allow you to take the bar exam by taking an apprentice position, rather than going to law school, though it’s a rarity; the great Calvin Coolidge did this. And we do it for accountants with the CPA exam and for engineering contractors and consultants with the FE and PE exams.
There are problems with qualification exams. You can teach to the test, and often skills just can’t be tested, though I would also then question whether they could be taught in a classroom. As the Institute for Justice has shown many times, regulatory agencies can deprive people of their livelihood through meaningless certification programs, and I would hate to see a trend develop encouraging more of these. Nevertheless, I think if you sold employers on comprehensive tests that could test a minimal level of knowledge in lieu of a college degree, you could bring about reform. The biggest hurdle would be selling this to employers, and they may need to be the ones initiating the effort.
As to the people that can’t teach themselves: I don’t know. I’m a firm believer that anyone who loves knowledge, can stay disciplined, and knows where to look for information, will be fine in this age. We still view education as having other people teach you, which is a problem; at the college level you teach yourself, and a teacher is just another resource, along with textbooks and tutorials.
Overall, the combination of qualification tests and cheap information could provide a pretty solid alternative for those learners that have the ability and motivation to learn on their own. So here are my questions to Ricocheteers:
- Are free educational resources a path to deflating or even popping the undergraduate education bubble?
- Could qualification exams be the answer to phasing this out?
- Do qualification exams run the risk of making us a certification society?