Law in the Internet Society

Why Universities May Be Doomed

-- By OmarHaroun - 26 Nov 2011

Are Universities Doomed?

This essay will discuss my views on why universities may be doomed and why technology will (hopefully) be able to replace most of the benefits of a university education at a fraction of the cost.

My Skepticism & Bias

With soaring tuition costs and an increased emphasis towards research/publications and away from teaching, the value of a university degree increasingly seems questionable to me. I’m saying this from the point of view of a student who is about to graduate with over two hundred thousand dollars in debt and who is choosing a career path after graduation, which offers very little monetary compensation.

Although a minority of courses successfully improve students’ critical thinking, I have found that the vast majority end up teaching a largely unhelpful set of facts or arguments, which fail to provide practical value and which do not really improve or change one’s way of thinking about the world.

The Two Main Theories in Education Economics

The economic literature on education reveals two views on education: the ‘signaling’ theory and the ‘human capital’ theory. The signaling theory purports that a degree from a university is merely a ‘signal’ that a person is smart, hard working, etc. and that the education itself provides little to no value for a person. The reason to get a university degree under this theory is that, in a world of imperfect information, one needs such a signal to convey that he or she is smart, successful, hard-working, reliable, etc. In other words, if I am an employer and I’m sifting through thousands of job applications, seeing that somebody graduated from Columbia Law School is a shortcut way for me to assume that this person is smart, hard-working, reliable (at least reliable enough to finish law school), etc. Under the signaling theory my attending Columbia Law School did not enhance my skills or make me any smarter, more hard-working etc. than I would have been if I had done something else for three years. However, if I had spent the same three years reading and writing books in my basement, my potential employer would have no way to ‘quickly’ assess my skill set from my resume in the way that he can if I go to Columbia Law School.

The “human capital” theory, in contrast, views education and a university degree as something which actually enhances one’s skill set, critical thinking, knowledge, etc. In other words, even if a person could end up with the same job in 5 years (with or without their degree), it would be better to get the degree since he or she will be that much smarter, sharper, more mature, etc. The reason to get a degree, then, under the human capital theory, is to actually improve one’s ‘human capital’ or set of skills.

Putting aside the flawed underlying assumptions of this debate, and operating under this paradigm for a moment, it’s interesting to analyze whether technology is capable of providing a ‘signal’ and/or and a way to enhance one’s ‘human capital’.

Technology and Open Source Information Enhances Human Capital

Technology has enabled people to discover and share information with millions of people at virtually no cost. This TWiki is just one example; there are thousands of other open source projects (available for free online) that contain enough “educational” materials to teach a person about virtually anything they would want to learn about. I can honestly say that as a Columbia Law Student I have probably learned more and enhanced my ‘human capital’ more from information online (via open source projects) than I have in the classroom.

The Missing Piece: Can Technology Enable a “Signaling” Effect?

I’ve now argued that technology, by enabling free information, has been able to enhance human capital in a way that was previously only possible by a university education. Even at universities, most students today learn more from online sources than they do in the classroom – though they pay thousands of dollars to be able to sit in these classrooms. One obvious reason why the number of university applicants is rising despite the fact that most educational information is available online is that, at least to some extent, the “signaling theory’ has merit, and that people are lining up at the top universities so that they earn that powerful ‘degree’ which signals to the world (and future employers) how smart they are.

I’ll end this essay by asking the reader whether you think technology is capable of also providing the ‘signaling’ aspect of a university education the way that it has proven itself to provide the ‘human capital’ aspect. In my view, as a social entrepreneur it is; many of the entrepreneurs I know that elicit the most respect are the ones who maintain an interesting blog, regularly contribute to open source projects, and make it clear to the online world through a variety of ‘signals’ that they are smart, hard-working, etc.

It is my hope that eventually as information becomes more and more available the value of a university degree will diminish, and people will realize that their time is better spent actually learning things of value and contributing their knowledge online rather than joining the rat race of people spending thousands of dollars on an education which only ends up hurting them in the end.


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r1 - 26 Nov 2011 - 19:00:30 - OmarHaroun
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