15 April 2011

Hundreds of Harvards

Peter Thiel is still promoting his notion that higher education is a bubble waiting to burst. I wrote a slightly paranoid response to this before, but he said something interesting in his new piece:

“If Harvard were really the best education, if it makes that much of a difference, why not franchise it so more people can attend? Why not create 100 Harvard affiliates?”

The first answer is that we do have hundred of Harvards across the country, just without the name. They’re the many public and private universities. They have the same mission as Harvard: deliver higher education.

The second answer is that sensible people realize that the difference in education between Harvard and other universities is nowhere near as great as the differences in price and exclusivity of those universities.

Seth Godin notes that a lot of what is dictating university choices – certainly for people trying to get into what are seen as “elite” universities – has a lot to do with people trying to create their own personal brands, not the education they get.

Like Thiel, Godin rightfully raise questions about the cost of an “elite” education.

Does a $40,000 a year education that comes with an elite degree deliver ten times the education of a cheaper but no less rigorous self-generated approach assembled from less famous institutions and free or inexpensive resources?

That people in this country get so hung up on a small number of schools is part of a larger social issue: the American class system.

Malcolm Gladwell points out that the importance of going to the “right” school is a particular indication of the inequalities of American society (which are getting deeper, by all accounts). In Canada, the University of Toronto or McGill could reasonably claim the title of being the Canadian equivalent of Harvard. But in Canada, few would think a University of Toronto bachelor’s degree is somehow so much better that a University of Lethbridge bachelor’s degree.

While some elements of Thiel’s analysis are correct, I think he’s wrong about a coming “pop!” in higher education. Too many employers want employees the bachelor’s degree. I can’t quite envision all the Fortune 500 companies suddenly saying, “We are no longer going to require our entry level positions to need bachelor’s degrees.”

I can see higher education shrinking and stratifying – that is, proportionately more kids from rich families. I don’t think that would be a good outcome, as education has traditionally been a means of creating social mobility.

The Scholarly Kitchen makes similar comments, totally independent of mine!

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