College Or No College?

Universities are dying, we hear. This is a strange announcement, because more people than ever are going to the universities. The achievement gap between those who go to the university and those who do not are growing. And, going to university has become an universal aspiration, swelling in Sub-Saharan Africa and remote islands in the Pacific alike. This is an institutional form at the peak of its power, prestige and popularity. 

The point of pessimism is indeed that the promise this popularity is based on is floundering. The allure of middle class life, that of stable life, job and income, drives the millions to the University. Yet, the middle class escalator is jammed, as Linkedin founder Reid Hoffman says, and not many of the teeming millions going to the university can really realise that dream. The alternate promise, that there will be entrepreneurs, is perhaps all too optimistic - and, in any case, unrelated to the proposition of the university. So, while the universities are doing well, its promise has gone bust.

There are others, of course, who talk about the timeless values that the university represents. Freedom, democracy and advancement of knowledge wouldn't happen without these institutions, they claim. Who will do the research if we let universities fail? Who will lead, if we are not teaching the citizens higher order thinking? What will happen to democracy if we don't learn to argue rationally, tolerantly and in a civil manner? All those, and more, are reasons beyond the simple commercial justification of going to the university, they say, and advocate that the state should keep paying for the university.

While the social contribution of the modern university is undeniable, there are a few problems with this latter view. First, this position refuses to accept social change, and that the universities may need to justify itself in the context of our society. Second, it also ignores the fact that the State itself is in trouble, and the discussions about the State are no longer about any unquestionable divine authority. What the state should or should not do has become an accounting discussion, and the tax has become taxpayers money (and no one, including those who advocate an expanded state funding, wants to pay more tax). Third, they also gloss over the fact that few students go to the university to become conscious citizens or civic leaders, and many more go there to get a job and a career. There are indeed a few who wants to create new knowledge and achieve fame and distinction in the process, but the recent expansion of university enrolments has nothing to do with this tiny minority. The university, as it stands today, represents a middle class dream, and must also reflect its crisis.

However, the proponents of no college (we are using the terms interchangeably, as in America) miss the fact that because of the preponderance of college-educated graduates, it is hard for those who did not go to college to compete. In short, the Code Academies (or movements such as UnCollege) could work in entrepreneurial hot spots such as Silicon Valley, and indeed, for a few star programmers, but it is hard to make such things work for everyone. Fellowships such as entrepreneurial Thiel Fellowship, backed by Billionaire Peter Thiel, which encourages bright pupils to leave college to start their own businesses, are based on an inverted view of humanity. Leaving college hardly guarantees that one would become Steve Jobs, but rather raises the odds of not becoming one. There is a case to be made for life experience to be part of the college proposition, but proving that it is going to be one or the other is much more difficult.

What would be a reasonable view of the future of the college, then? Would we see universities/ colleges dying, and numerous alternate programmes springing up to take its place? Or would it carry on, despite its central premises breaking down, at least in those places where millions of young people would continue to believe (blindly) in the middle class dream? History, and we must indulge the past to understand future at times, point to neither. In our thesis about the college as a teaching or a research institution, we ignore the other function of the college - a sorting mechanism, an enabler of the social order that we have come to create. This is what college did, from the time it existed, and as the social requirements have changed, so did the college. The point is - short of total extinction of human civilisation, in which case none of this will matter, the need for such social arrangements is unlikely to go away. It may be different from what industrial societies, with its vast army of middle classes, needed, or, what nations that wanted to build a law-abiding citizenry depended upon. But we will have a social order, and need to arrange people according to the same. The university will continue to exist, in its credentialing role, even after its teaching roles have migrated. 

Now, everyone may have a view about this, and the greater and lesser purpose of the college all exist. However, while all of this may be replicated on a iPhone somewhere, a man and his dog would still not be able to assume the credentialing role that the college plays. The real danger to the college is really making a mockery of these credentials, as some, intent on pure pursuit of profit, have done. But we know the institutional form is resilient as those diploma-mills usually withered, and we have seen additional layers of validation (ranking, regulatory transparency etc) come in place to make some college credentials more valuable than others. 

So, those putting money on college are better off looking in the credentialing function over and above other things. It does not mean that everyone needs to go to the top universities - that would never work - but only that a natural order of colleges would come to exist which reflect the social ranking of the host societies. The college, instead of being a provider of hope, may just become a rubber-stamp of legitimacy for privilege. This is a far cry from the lofty view of college education that once existed, but the previous view was deeply embedded in the belief that the social order is changeable. That we have given up on that change, must now reflect on what the college does.

However, this is indeed the point of departure. The college credentials, as good as they may be, are meaningless without the underlying promise of progress and hope. Once the college just clings onto it without its content, its future may have really gone bust. And, precisely at this point, there is no consensus whether the college is dying. In the West, allowing some generalisation, with all its famed universities, great tradition, brilliant professors, the hope of change has withered. So have all the other functions of the college, save the legitimisation of social privilege. In developing countries, with some generalisation, the hope of a changing social order, that the children will have a better life than their parents, is alive and well - and indeed, the promise of college is much more than rubber stamping privilege.

The debate about end of college, carried out usually in American terms (perhaps not unfairly, because college was so successful there), is therefore misleading. The global trends are not just lagged version of American trends. The dreams of social change is alive in many societies, in different forms, and that provides the life blood of college. The inverted form of this also true and treating college as a fountain of progress rather than a source of educated workers predestined to carry out social functions meant for them will keep the belief in social change alive. College still works, but only in some places where its promise is sorely needed.



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