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Friday, August 6, 2010

Is College the only way to expand one's intellect?

Two very good days of articles on college in the Los Angeles Free Press. Here is the publisher’s wrap-up on the subject yesterday.

I of course never get tired of this subject so here are a few additional (but far from final) thoughts on college. First, I question the belief that college is the only or best way to build one’s intellect. It is one way to expand your horizons but there are alternatives to college that may do the job at a far lower cost. Today, it is reasonably easy to get an understanding of virtually any subject online (check out the Khan Academy which is free and where one can learn the basics of anything from molecular formulas to electron configuration). Compare the information available to those learning from Khan versus the limited number of books that Abe Lincoln had to work with. It is also fairly easy to engage in an online debate with those on the other side on most subjects as well. So college is not the only place to have a good argument or dig into and learn about a tough subject.

With some private colleges charging up to $220,000 (room and board) over four years and fewer students actually graduating in only four years, are these institutions providing enough intellectual stimulation and development for the dollar spent? You might remind me that there are scholarships and grants that may reduce the student’s cost - but this simply means that somebody else is paying the tab. A few might even suggest that college is worth it at any price.

Some are just not ready to take on certain subjects when they are 18-22 years old, so I suggest that college might be better after a year or two of another experience immediately after high school (like work, starting a business or living overseas and learning another language). If a student is not at all interested in learning about the basics of logic, the minimum sample size of a statistically significant set, or how best to put one’s hypothesis into words, then that individual is unlikely to retain much from simply hanging around the classroom as the discussion takes place around him.

The classroom model is an old and expensive model for learning. And this is still very much today’s college model. Not to mention that at many prestigious universities the instructor is an assistant and not the full professor. The full professor (who is advertised, sometimes misleadingly as the instructor) is not teaching on a daily basis because she is actively engaged in research or writing rather than daily classroom work.

I clearly accept the notion that college has value but its value depends on what one studies and what one pays for the experience. And like other investments that require resources and time, one should be searching for an excellent payback for a smaller outlay. Cost matters and as long as college costs and investment return go unquestioned (like buying a home was just a few years ago) then the cost will continue to inflate dramatically, and our politicians will fight back with more subsidies rather than questioning or changing the basic model.

Critical thinking matters. Logical thought matters. The ability to express oneself both in writing and in speech matter. But cost also matters. And setting up oneself so that you can earn a decent living in tomorrow’s world really matters.

College is one of many paths from adolescence to independence but today too many Americans blindly assume that college is a must, and an investment that will pay dividends at any price.

Accepting the college investment in all circumstances and at any cost especially when one goes deep into debt for an interesting but non job-producing major (Ethnomusicology, Sociology, Medieval History, French Poetry) needs far more questioning. And not just for your friends’ kids but your children as well. College is just one of many options that the young may consider and the choic needs to be questioned critically and compared to the alternatives on a student by student basis.


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