the value of college in the Internet era

Students, families, and societies are making large investments in college education.  In the U.S., about 41% of persons ages 25 to 34 years old have completed a two-year or four-year college degree.  Another 19% of persons in those age groups have taken some college courses but have not received a degree.[1]  These statistics indicate that a majority of young adults today have spent at least some time in college courses.  Probably more than half have spent more than a year in college.  While younger persons have a lower work-income opportunity cost of college years than do older persons, they have a greater opportunity cost of future returns from foregone learning and experiences that are more valuable than college. The investment of young persons’ years in college is a significant investment both individually and socially.

The direct financial investment in college is also substantial.  The sticker price of some elite private colleges in the U.S. now exceeds $50,000 per year, and the state-resident sticker price for some state universities exceeds $20,000 per year.  Colleges, however, engage in person-specific price discrimination through high sticker prices and individualized financial aid.  Financial aid packages include both direct price reductions (scholarship grants) and student loans (which have a significant default rate).  Good statistics apparently aren’t available on the net average paid cost per year of college.  It’s probably above $10,000 per year.

College is a good institution for young persons.  Many colleges offer students the opportunity to get away from their families and hang out with other young persons.  College cafeterias usually offer unlimited quantities of food.  Being at college tends to improve opportunities for sex. College also offers the opportunity to gain a life-long tribal affiliation similar to that of dedicated sports fans.  Most significantly, young persons cannot get parental, institutional, or governmental funding for non-collegiate activities such as living in a different culture, working on starting a new company, or dedicating oneself to excelling in an activity or sport.  A young person’s alternative to college is usually a paying job.  College easily is more appealing to a young person than is getting a job.

But college courses have relatively little value as sources of knowledge in the Internet era.  College courses typically are organized around a subject designation and classes where the professor stands in front and professes knowledge to the students.  Students, however, have ready access on demand to a vast repository of knowledge via the Internet. Except for highly specialized cases, the professor’s knowledge surely is less comprehensive, less readily accessible, and less current than knowledge freely available on the Internet.

Students’ motivations to learn have little effect on the shape of the college courses that they take.  A college course is set in a syllabus before students start out on it. The course typically responds relatively little to students’ interests and questions while traversing it.  Students usually foresee applying their college-gained course knowledge in far distance years and uncertain circumstances. In contrast, adults seeking to solve new and pressing problems are strongly motivated to follow promising learning wherever it leads.  This personal, problem-driven learning implies a more propitious learning course than do college courses.

The classes that make up courses usually don’t have good learning mechanics.  Some highly motivated students vigorously and diligently attempt to write down everything that the professor says.  Other students take notes more desultorily.  The exercise of note-taking tends to detract from active listening and thinking.  Students are subject to uniform exercises and tests.  That uniformity penalizes diversity in ways of learning and types of intellectual mastery. Course credits and grades signal that students have finished the course and have been sorted into an authoritative order of success.[2] Because knowledge and skills of students are not measured at the beginning of courses, course grades typically have little relation to learning.

Academic institutions traditionally have claimed to offer valuable meta-knowledge: courses of whatever subject teach students how to learn.  But since most learning outside of college will take place with Internet tools that involve experiences much different from taking college courses, colleges’ claims to teach students how to learn aren’t credible.  That’s particularly true in courses with professors suspicious of Internet tools such as Google, Wikipedia, and various online fora.[3]

Colleges can have enduring intellectual value by inspiring in students love of learning and joy in learning.  Motivation to learn is not just a matter of internal spark or external pressure.  It’s also an acquired pattern of life.  Professors who radiate interest and joy in study of their subjects testify to this pattern of life.  An institutional environment that celebrates achievements in learning orients persons to learning.  Having peers available for sharing knowledge encourages learning.  For colleges to have intellectual value, academics must be fun.

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[1] See U.S. 2011 Statistical Abstract, Table 227.  These data are for the year 2009.

[2] Some students spend most class time flirting, playing with gadgets, talking, or sleeping.  Since by reading books and borrowing notes students can do well on tests without paying attention in classes, some professors base some share of the final grade on class participation.

[3] For recent empirical work evaluating college students’ acquisition of general intellectual skills, see Arum, Richard, and Josipa Roksa. 2011. Academically adrift: limited learning on college campuses. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.  This study does not consider the changing technological circumstances of learning.

2 thoughts on “the value of college in the Internet era”

  1. This is very well written and is spot on. One of my pet peaves – and that is what we also talk extensively about the Value of College at our blog and our website

    Hope you don’t mind if I quote you a bit.

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