Doing Away with College

Will society kill higher education before higher education kills society?

Higher education has turned into a self-licking ice cream cone, meaning an institution that has lost its sense of purpose and instead is focused on self-perpetuation. For many reasons, we need to do away with college as we know it.

Broadly speaking, we need to replace two aspects of college. One is the process of obtaining knowledge and demonstrating what one has obtained. The other is the rest of the college experience—its extracurricular aspects.

Guides, Study Buddies, and Examiners

Students can find most of what they need to learn on line. They do not need to pay a professor to lecture to them. All they need is a guide to provide them with a syllabus. The syllabus tells you what you are expected to learn and where to find the best resources to learn it. For example, a first-year economics syllabus would include supply and demand, comparative advantage, and other standard topics.

As an aside, I would suggest that the lecture format is rarely effective on line. The vast majority of lessons should be much shorter and more tightly focused than a typical college lecture. I also believe that two voices are much better than one. There is a reason that the successful podcast format is a conversation, not a monologue. I can imagine a two-voice lesson with one person playing the role of a student, who raises questions that move the lesson along and also force the professor to deal with common pitfalls and misconceptions about the topic. Check out the video Quantitative Easing Explained as illustrating the potential of the two-voice format. (I am not endorsing all the Fed-bashing here, but the point that the government pays Goldman Sachs to act as an intermediary when one agency—the Fed—transacts with another agency—the Treasury—points to a little-appreciated absurdity about the government-financial industry complex.)

I think that every student should have a study buddy. That is, someone who learns at the same time. Study buddies motivate one another, help one another, and keep one another on track. In Jewish learning of religious texts, the study-buddy system, known as Hevruta, has worked for centuries. With an appropriate online app, it would be easy to find a study buddy in any subject. The two people need not meet in person.

The most rigorous courses use outside examiners. That is, the professor who teaches the course is not the same one who writes and grades the exam. Swarthmore College uses outside examiners for its upper-class seminars.

The high school Advanced Placement program uses exam-writers and exam-graders recruited by the College Board. In addition, the College Board makes available to students past years’ exam questions and other sample questions to enable students to prepare for exams.

A crucial aspect of AP exams is the credibility of the results. A high score on the exam is well regarded by colleges and in many instances can be used for credit. When we do away with college altogether, the institution that supplies examiners will have to achieve similar credibility with hiring organizations, graduate schools, and professional schools.

In the scheme that I envision, a guide would submit a syllabus to the examination coordinating body. That body would either develop or adapt an appropriate exam or series of exams for students. Note that exams could require writing long essays or even term papers.

One can infer that the key to doing away with college is to develop an institution that has credibility in overseeing the examination process. The examination coordinating body has to hire staff to draft exams and to grade the sections of exams that cannot be graded by computers. This body should work with hiring organizations, graduate schools, and professional schools to make sure that exams are aligned with what those customers need.

The Extra-curricular Experience

The “college experience” used to involve getting to know people from different backgrounds, trying out new activities, and taking advantage of opportunities for social gatherings and entertainment.

Today, this experience is less enriching. For all the talk about diversity, the student body is close to a monoculture. There are very few undergraduates who are not from zip codes where families are affluent and well-educated.

The college experience is also protective and controlled. An army of administrators hovers over students, enforcing rules about sexual encounters, speech, and so on.

Undergraduates appear to have much less autonomy than when I was a student 50 years ago. When I was in college, going back to live with one’s parents after graduation was unthinkable. Today, it is commonplace. It seems that many students graduate college unprepared to live in the real world.

I believe that high school graduates would gain more from experience of life off campus. Working at a blue-collar job. Or taking an extended road trip that puts one in contact with people of different social classes. Or doing a stint in the military.

Above all, I think that high school graduates could use a taste of the real world. Living on a budget. Doing your own laundry. Finding and taking care of your own apartment. Handling your own transportation. Making your own social connections.

Jonathan Haidt points out that the younger generation has shockingly high rates of mental illness, particularly among women. Evidently, the college experience these days is not part of the solution, and it may well be part of the problem. Switching to a different experience could help.

Conclusion

I know that it seems difficult to do away with college. But I think it is vital that we do so. Recently, Andrew Sullivan wrote,

the sudden, rapid, stunning shift in the belief system of the American elites. It has sent the whole society into a profound cultural dislocation. It is, in essence, an ongoing moral panic against the specter of “white supremacy,” which is now bizarrely regarded as an accurate description of the largest, freest, most successful multiracial democracy in human history.

The most urgent need is to break the ideological stranglehold that extreme progressives have on many campuses. Their ideology is antithetical to markets, traditional families, and liberalism in the best sense of the word. It looks to me as if higher education is in the process of killing our society. Our only hope is to kill higher education first.