Ask about the purpose.

The latest efforts to move “higher education” forward have been reactionary, at best. Here are the calls they make:

1. We must liberate the content! Open Source everything!

What content? Who is paying for its creation? Isn’t anyone worried about over-canonization?

2. Democratize Accreditation! Everything we do deserves credit!

What, then, is the purpose of credentialing? If we are getting “credit” for work experience and independent study and paid study couldn’t we just call it “life” and do away with credits completely.

3. Everyone deserves to have a college education!

This begs the question: what is a college education? Each year the disparity and diversity of programs grows. “College” now means everything from an online program to prepare you as an x-ray technician to a four-year involved residential community where you write, discuss, and read great literature in small groups. When we talk in generalities about “higher education”, we have to recognize that the word “college” means very little as a definition. Its meaning now has been reduced to an era: college = schooled life after high school.


Everyone sees that our college system (our post-high school education) is not working. It is too expensive. It has poor student outcomes. It does not adequately prepare students for the workplace. It is too inaccessible. It is not innovative. Amongst the new attempts to solve these problems highlighted by the NYTimes this week:

1. Western Governor’s University

2. University of the People

3. Learning Counts

4. Straighter Line

All of these claim to be a quicker, easier, and cheaper way to a college education. But, again, what is this education and, more importantly, what is its value and purpose?

A couple specific examples from the Times articles:

1. “Alan Long, 34, a paramedic and fire captain, used [...] Learning Counts, to create a portfolio that included his certifications and a narrative spelling out what he had learned on the job. He paid $750 to Learning Counts and came out with seven credits at Ottawa University in Kansas, where he would have had to spend $2,800 to earn them in a traditional classroom.”

Notice this quote does not refer to learning, but earning. For Alan Long, his “college education” is merely filling out some forms, compiling papers, and paying a fee so that he can prove that he can do something that he already does and is already certified to do. Why are we asking Alan to spend his time and money on this? Why does he feel like he needs to? If the purpose of schooling is to prepare students to do things, then this is turned upside down. Alan is completing schooling because he has already done things and is, in fact, doing them right now.

2. “They don’t have electricity, they don’t have computers, there are university students who have to carry water on their head from another mountain,” said Shai Reshef, the Israeli entrepreneur who spent $1 million to create the free university two years ago. “They come in two shifts, for four hours a day, to study. Their need was to the point that we began a feeding program.”

Reshef, founder of the University of the People is discussing how he recently set up a free computer-learning site in Haiti. Students come to study for large portions of the day at the “free University” one of their two programs: computer science and business administration. Reshef’s program is laudable and successful in offering a “higher education” learning experience to students. The purpose of this study, however, seems misguided, especially considering its context. In a country where students have to carry water between mountains, do not have computers, electricity, or other basic necessities, it is not of primary importance for them to learn about code debugging and corporate tax structure. The value–and therefore the content–of a “higher education” must change across cultures and nations. Reshef’s program, while probably useful for many, is ignorant in its approach to Haiti. At best, it will train up students so they are able to leave Haiti. A few students may find individual success, but a better approach would train up students who could serve the country’s more pressing needs. What about programs in water conservation and purification? Island-focused agricultural practice? Disease prevention? Natural Disaster Management? Sustainable home construction?


Instead of rushing forward with new, savvy designs and technologies that will save higher education and bring the University to the world, we must first stop and think about its purpose. For too long now the college experience–and whatever it entails–has been accepted as a universal good. To college or not to college? To college, always.

To college if we learn general skills, get a dull job, and have $30,000 in debt?

To college if we master painting, read amazing literature, and understand the in and outs of most german philosophers, but have $80,000 in debt and absolutely no career options?

To college if you already have a good career, and are doing good work and have to work less and take out loans to attend?

To college if its just the next step after high school, so you can try “living on your own” and enjoy “the social experience” and “figure out what you want to do” ?

The purpose must always be to prepare students to live better in their place upon graduation; to improve their lives and the lives of their neighbors through the insight, hope, and excellence they have gained in their work and wisdom. Free universally generic business courses will not help Haitians rebuild, just as Alan the firefighter is not saving lives any better because he paid for college credit. The University must enable its students to recognize what work is valuable and then to go out and do it.