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Thoughts on College

Planted 02020-07-09

Originally written on April 13th.

Education flows down from the needs of employers. Companies outsource their recruiting efforts to universities, who gauge the quality of applicants on their behalf. Employers benefit, and students pay with time and debt. Accreditation signals competence, so HR directors save time and money by restricting their applicant pool to graduates from top-tier universities. Ivy League graduates, for example, pass an arbitrarily set quality bar that makes them attractive to many employers.

To ease the recruiting process, universities build intimate relationships with employers. They justify exorbitant tuition costs by funneling graduates to respected, well-paying companies, such as big banks and consulting firms. Universities invest in relationships with successful alumni and career development departments to boast about the jobs their graduates get into. Knowing this, aspiring students and parents fight for coveted spots at Universities.

As colleges lost their monopoly on information, they became less about learning and more about signaling. Whatever value they once provided has continuously diminished.

Like multinational conglomerates, the information explosion has crushed university monopolies. Information has moved from a position of scarcity to abundance. As alternatives emerge, universities will lose their stranglehold on consumer dollars. Instead of following the well-worn path of University, students are supporting low-cost alternatives and proving their worth without college degrees. “Paying your dues” isn’t as necessary as it once was.

An increasingly well-trodden path is finding an obscure topic or emerging industry where lack of experience isn’t an issue. Then, researching it obsessively. After building a knowledgebase, you can advertise your skills and attract opportunities by sharing knowledge online.

A few things:

01. The complete move online highlights the uselessness of many colleges.

The move online allowed my parents to finally understand a frustrating dynamic of college for me. It’s a known pain to pay for college. And then colleges tell us if we want to take a class we have to pay for independent third parties to give us the resources. This allowed a near-seamless transition into remote education as the in-person sessions were supplementary to the third party resources from the beginning. The providers of education are not colleges in this dynamic and I hope many people use this moment to reflect on what college is currently being used for and what it could be. Right now it’s accreditation, it’s not the solution, it’s the problem. Historically, College permitted you unparalleled access to information and great minds—with the internet, you no longer need permission for that access (Aside from the medical field and other broken places where information does not flow freely even for professionals).

For many people, I hope this move online is a wake-up call to say “We don’t want you and all your baggage right now.”

02. Colleges need to connect

As many are coming to realize, most classes are well suited to be done remotely. But there are more aspects to college besides just going to class.

It’s the transmission of culture, a culture that gives access to others who are in better situations than you are, situations that you may desire to be in. It’s the shared base of experiences for many that defines their college experience and creates lifelong relationships.

Colleges have readily equipped themselves with third-party providers to enable remote testing (don’t get me started on how evasive many of these are) and learning. But the culture part was enabled through the proximity colleges gave in-person and the desire of individuals to connect. Without that proximity, the culture that gives many colleges desirability and prestige is erased.

03. Colleges that focus on connecting people instead of lecturing them will be the ones that last.

Anyone can learn anything online, it’s the desire to learn that is scarce. Colleges don’t need to provide learning materials, they need to provide connections and a community of people that show up and contribute without waiting for instruction. This isn’t limited to just Colleges, workplaces also need to provide a playground to engage with others.

Historically this proximity was provided in-person from Colleges. Anyone transitioning online should focus entirely on creating better interactions that enable people to solve the hard problems together.

Many have yet to figure that out.

And hopefully, we move away from all those that feel the need to make everything live calls and treat every class as if you still need their permission to get access to information that’s centuries-old.

04. It’s hard because we’re rethinking the answers to a few simple questions

How do we value contributions?
How do we determine competence?
How do we establish a common character?
What is College for?