The dilemma of university education

photo credit:Chris Ison/PA

What is the purpose of education? Sir Ken Robinson gave his answer. He said,“currently, our education system produces professors”. There is certainly,nothing wrong with being a professor, but not everyone can be a professor and we need more professionals than professors.

Today, when I look back on my almost 20 years of education, I realize, the  purpose of education for me, is to discover myself, and learn how to learn. However, this process has cost me so much that I almost regret it.

The rising tech companies in Silicon Valley have spread their contempt of university education to a broader audience. Mark Zukerberg dropped out of school so he can continue building his social media empire and the legend of Bill Gates of course, once inspired many young people drop out of school to pursue their dreams.

Numbers of technology professionals in Silicon Valley today do not have proper school training and yet, they are the experts on their fields. They enjoy the highest average salaries among US and a perfect work-life balance life style. They are the success stories: another version of American dream and university education is not the prerequisite for it.

My roommate is a university professor; he has two Masters’ degrees in computer science and philosophy, one Doctoral degree in philosophy and currently on sabbatical to pursue another PhD in computer science. He is reluctant to talk about his degrees, because he was afraid that people would judge him for being over educated and they might think that he has nothing to do but study.

I think the examples I made are little bit too extreme. But when people can achieve massive success without a university degree and others are ashamed of telling others about their academic achievements, it is time to re-think the purpose of education.

University education is an expensive investment. People who want to pursue an academic degree not only need to pay for tuition with money they haven’t earned but also to spend at least 4 years of their most valuable time in the university campus. Since the bet is so big, the risk of return is also very high. Twenty years ago, when there were only 10-20 percent of the population has college degree, the return on investment was considerable. People with university degrees often receive higher salaries and easier to get promoted, because their academic degree was the only indication of high level of learning acumen.

Fast forward 20 years later and our world has been changed. Over 40 percent of the population has a Bachelor’s or higher degree. The privilege of higher education has faded away. The unemployment rate in United States is so high that new graduates are worrying about getting employed other than weighting their income.

It is very sad to see many young grads struggling to find a job after spending years in university and they graduate with a mountain of debt, which they need to start paying off almost immediately. Nowadays the return on investment on university education has become so small that it can almost be ignored.

The cost of academic education is not the only issue; the amount of time spent on full time learning is a more serious problem than money.

I am talking about the sunk cost. Suppose no one changes major during college, the minimum sunk cost for each is 4 years. But if anyone wants to change major/interest in school, their sunk cost is the amount of time that takes to discover interests+ 4 years sunk cost. In another word, the sunk cost of university is at least 4+ years, some might take 4+2=6years, and some might even take 4+3=7 years. How many 4+ years do we have in our lives to sit in the classroom and discover our academic interests?

The style of studying varies individual by individual. Some need longer time to discover self-interests, some learn by doing and yet others need special events/triggers to decide what life-direction to go on. Everyone sitting in the classroom in her/his early 20s certainly doesn’t seem so rational anymore and after all, university education is not the most economical choice.

But things aren’t so bleak for education. The booming of online education enables to listen to a lecture taught by a professor from Stanford while sitting in the kitchen. Learning by solving problems and asking questions in an online community where people in related disciplines are closely connected. There are so many channels in different languages, they are economical and flexible, they cover vast range of topics and interests and they are interactive and interesting. Who would want to spend years in the classroom and listen to the lecture continuously for 6 hours?

Of course, online education cannot replace every form of education, especially disciplines that are heavily focused on practice, but it gives people more choices.

I am not anti-university education. I spent 5 years on campus, learned from the most amazing professors and got to know classmates that later become lifelong friends. Learning on campus provides atmosphere and motivation to do better. But a university degree is not the only standard to judge one’s learning ability anymore. It needs an evolution to fit in the rapidly change society.

The purpose of education, as I recall, is to teach individuals how to absorb complex information and make reasoned arguments but not the actual content. And it shouldn’t be a standard process for everyone and a measurement of success.


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