Phi Beta Cons

Will Your Kids Go to College, or to the University of Everywhere?

My Pope Center Clarion Call today is a review/essay of Kevin Carey’s new book The End of College. I found it fascinating and highly persuasive.

In sum, Carey argues that the old-fashioned college bundle (degree, fun, dubious learning) will soon be replaced by what he calls “the University of Everywhere.” The U of E is the vast assortment of online learning, assessment, and certification that has been gaining momentum slowly for decades. (His history of that development alone is worth the price of the book. If you’ve never heard of Patrick Suppes or Herbert Simon, you’ll marvel at their pioneering work.) The standard retort when online courses come up has been, “They’re not very good and can’t compete with actually being in the classroom.” Carey’s counter-argument to that is devastating. He actually took the online MIT introductory biology course taught by the famed Eric Lander and found that learning the material online was much better than being in the classroom.

What I find so appealing about the U of E is that it’s a spontaneous, unregulated, free-market response to the evident inefficiency of the educational status quo. Carey and I are in perfect agreement that higher ed is mainly run for the benefit of the producers (faculty, administration, and other hangers-on) with little concern for the consumers. Despite all the obligatory talk about commitment to educational excellence, most profs and schools are happy to let students “float on a river of mediocrity,” as he puts it. The U of E gives serious students the opportunity to opt out of that for more focused and far less costly alternatives.

This won’t eliminate traditional brick and mortar schools, but those that survive will be those that are student-centered (as the first university, Bologna was), rather than faculty-centered, as most now are.

The End of College is a very thought-provoking book. Here’s one thought: what if the U of E expands to include primary and middle education? That has already begun, of course. If higher ed in America is a high-cost, low-benefit operation run for the benefit of the purveyors, that is even more true with regard to our K-12 system. Imagine the brain power that would be released if sharp and ambitious kids could race through basic education without the constraints of assigned schools, age-groupings, governmentally-approved curricula and so forth. Also imagine the frantic efforts of the K-12 blob to hold on to their cushy positions once parents start demanding freedom to take advantage of the School of Everywhere.

 

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.

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