It is indeed time that we ask this question and seek an answer. After all, we live in the age of, what some observers claim, an education bubble. Who would have thought, only a couple of decades back, that more education could be seen as a bad thing? However, as the college debts soar in America, and graduate unemployment keeps rising, it seems that some people will indeed go bankrupt for their education, and there is a real fear that it may pull an economy or two down. It is therefore pertinent to ask what the college does to a person, and see if it has, as an institution, any ongoing relevance in the modern society.
But, before that, let us acknowledge that it is indeed one of those big hairy questions that no one wants to answer. College is a good thing, we have come to accept. We live in a knowledge economy, we have come to accept. More education means greater productivity, and only a moron can question this assumption. Education has become key to employability, and this should be obvious to anyone with, er, education. Good education means better salaries, or at least, used to. The college is about delivering education, which enhances 'useful' knowledge and skills, which should get a person a job: Period.
However, with the benefit of the recession, as we come to see that going to college does not automatically mean getting a job. In fact, this may mean an ultimate disillusionment. Also, suddenly, there are other avenues where one could learn things. There are a number of non-college programmes one could attend. Besides, there is online: Google, YouTube, TED etc. And, now, there is something which many pundits are dubbing as the college-killer, the likes of MIT, Yale and Stanford putting up their stuff, lecture notes, videos and now even credit-bearing courses, online with no charge at all. If this does not drive people away from college, what will?
I, however, don't think the free online stuff, or the lack of jobs, will kill the college. If anything, they will enhance its appeal. While the naysayers may see lack of jobs discouraging people from going to college, collectively, humans are an optimistic species and they link getting education to future jobs and not what will happen to them today. Besides, they actually see college enhancing their marketability in the future, particularly when there is more competition for jobs. This has happened before and this will happen again. The fact that the enrolment is down in some business schools isn't indicative of people losing faith in education: It is just indicative that the said business school, or schools, were not delivering value.
For the free online stuff, it is extremely valuable to people who have already been to college. They are the ones who are mentally prepared to look out for such stuff. When Open University started in Britain in the early seventies, the founders hoped that this would advance social justice and become the 'university of second chance'; instead, it quickly became the university of lifelong learning, with middle class college graduates flocking to top up their knowledge with something they wanted to study, but didn't manage to. This is what is happening with Open Courseware: There are school teachers studying high finance, and Army Captains studying physics. It is addressing one of the great imbalances in modern education, that to be great, great institutions have to be extremely selective, but it is hardly making college irrelevant.
This brings me to my idea of why we need college. It is not to make someone fit for a specific job, because this can only be effectively done with pre-employment or on-the-job training. It is not even about imparting knowledge or skills, because that a library should be doing, online or offline. The key function of a college to make a student, a student; to create that social environment built around learning, to encourage people to read and spend the long hours in the library, to challenge the word of the newspaper and the words of Google, to learn not to succumb to the obvious and to discover that there are more than one ways a person can get things right. The construction of student identity, built around the relationship between the student-as-person and knowledge, is the essential thing that the college does.
I have indeed seen institutions which do not get it. These colleges are all but rows of classrooms: They believe students don't want anything but skills and 'employability'. Indeed, they get it wrong. They prepare students for jobs which no longer exist, as fast changing environment always means that one trains for yesterday's jobs. They get the meaning of 'employability' wrong: It is not about fitting a particular job spec, but being able to find jobs and keeping them (the latter being the bigger of the problems). They allow little social space, engage students little outside their timetabled hours, they challenge little and do not inspire: The conversations, in their hallways, if indeed there is a hallway, are about getting degrees. Now, these institutions are indeed being made redundant, by the twin forces of recession and online. But, the colleges which help build the student identity, which are built around knowledge and enquiry, which are designed to inspire, keep attracting more people than ever.
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