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The Value of Higher Education?

May 27th, 2011 | Posted by admin in Learning

Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal, has made headlines lately for an interview he did on ABC News where he talked about the “anti-scholarships” he’s giving to students with “big ideas” to drop out of college and pursue those ideas.

A more intriguing interview with Thiel was done by Sarah Lacy over at TechCrunch. In that interview Thiel describes higher education as the next big bubble. “A true bubble is when something is overvalued and intensely believed,” he says.

In a way, his anti-scholarships are a way for him to thumb his nose at what he regards as an unchallenged narrative regarding higher education, namely that the one single guaranteed path to a secure future is college. Thiel doesn’t see it that way: “You have to get rid of the future you wanted to pay off all the debt from the fancy school that was supposed to give you that future.”

To me there’s a more fundamental issue lurking here that has nothing to do with “fancy schools” or “big ideas”. Access to education and training is quickly pricing itself out of the reach of ordinary Americans. All of the tax-payer money that supports public schools creates resources only a few of those taxpayers can afford to take advantage of.

Worse, the model of four years (or more) of intensive study, followed by the urgent need to get any job to pay off the debt incurred, often results in the “value” of that education not being leveraged for some years into the future. By which time the certification too often becomes simply a “get in free” card to an interview and the conversation switches to “experience”.

In my view, the “education bubble” is more about an ineffective model for a fast-changing world than a value calculation. Access to education needs to be easier, more flexible, and available over a person’s lifetime.

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