The other day I stumbled on an interview of Peter Thiel that raised concern in me. Unlike the facetious concern a previous article raised, this interview raised concerns that hit close to home. Thiel is predicting that the next bubble to burst is higher education.
Thiel predicted the dot.com bubble, getting out before it burst, and until recently, steadfastly refused to invest in property, as he (correctly) believed that the housing market was a bubble that was on the verge of busting. He explains why the shift has moved to higher education:
Like the housing bubble, the education bubble is about security and insurance against the future. Both whisper a seductive promise into the ears of worried Americans: Do this and you will be safe.The excesses of both were always excused by a core national belief that no matter what happens in the world, these were the best investments you could make. Housing prices would always go up, and you will always make more money if you are college educated.
We’re always looking for something stable to put our trust (and money) in. However, more people are going to college for fewer jobs. I’m not looking to get into a political debate about why this is the case. It is worth noting that more and more people are becoming more and more overqualified for the few jobs that are out there, all the while, building up massive amounts of debt, because a college degree is supposed to guarantee both employment and a good salary.
In discussions I’ve had with friends at various universities (public and private), it has become clear that the concern of parents when sending their children to college is about what kind of job their children will be able to get upon graduation. The interest in the formation of their children into responsible, engaged citizens, or even getting a well-rounded education often pales in comparison to the job prospects upon graduation. While I will be the first admit that a job is a good for which we should all strive in education, we may need to step back and ask if incurring these tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars of debt is necessary to achieve this good.
On one hand, there is a part of me that says, “Yes!” This is the part of me that looks at the bleak job market, knowing that a greater number of students will require a greater number of professors, increasing the likelihood of me finding a job. However, a larger part of me seriously wrestles with the actual value of the education offered in comparison to the cost of families and students. We wax eloquently about the need for education and that one should follow one’s dreams. But in too many cases, Thiel recognizes that “you have to get rid of the future you wanted to pay off all the debt from the fancy school that was supposed to give you that future.”
The cost of higher education keeps increasing, motivated, in part, by the desire for prestige and exclusivity. The interviewer notes a story from Geoffrey Canada of a college refusing to reduce fees because of the concern that a cheaper price will convey a less prestigious education. In that case, it seems like it is not about the education (from the school’s perspective), but about selling a bill of goods to students and parents, with the greater prestige implicitly guaranteeing a better job, or at least a better chance at a job.
I recognize that schools need students in order to pay the bills. I recognize that students and parents do not want to invest time and money into an education that will ultimately leave them with a large debt and no job. However, it seems that education has traditionally been more about the formation of the human person than merely providing the resources to get a job. I would argue that forming the human person well also makes them someone with the resources to do a job well.
A careful reader may stop me and ask why I said “do a job” instead of “get a job” in that last sentence. The concern is that most businesses are not equipped (nor could they easily be equipped) to pick out the well-formed human persons. Picking those would require much more than a cover letter, resume, references, and interview. Instead, the most efficient use of their time is to look for evidence of a set of skills and training needed to do the job. When that is the goal for employers, applicants look for ways to show that evidence, and the more prestigious one’s training, the more likely that individual has been trained to do the job well. So future applicants (students) look for places to be trained (schools), and look for the best training possible for the job they want to do. If they happen to be formed as a human person in the process, it is often merely an added, unintended bonus.
Again, I want to make clear that I understand this motivation. However, it seems incorrect to say that a traditional, 4-year college education is necessary for this goal. Thiel is funding opportunities for students to stop out of college, by providing 20 students with $100,000 apiece over two years to start a business, and has lined up many friends to mentor these students, giving them real, on-the-job training to start a successful business. This seems to be a better way to train businessmen.
If there were a plethora of opportunities like the ones that Thiel is providing, I can’t help but wonder if we would start to see a more traditional understanding of higher education reemerge. Colleges and universities could again become places that are concerned primarily with forming students into responsible citizens, engaged in their communities as well-formed human persons. It is not that the job training aspects would necessarily have to go away, but they could be seen as part of the formation of the person, rather than the whole of the education.
I don’t know if this solution is feasible, but please leave a comment so we can start the discussion.