Americans are becoming disenchanted with higher education. They say it lacks relevance and isn’t cost justified — and that therefore we should send fewer children to college. They blame universities for skyrocketing education costs. That is what I’ve learned — the hard way — in my effort to defend America’s education system.
In April, the popular tech blog TechCrunch published an article titled, “Peter Thiel: We’re in a Bubble and It’s Not the Internet. It’s Higher Education.” This was about the Paypal cofounder’s offer of $100,000 to 20 students if they agreed to drop out of college and start a business. I was horrified at the extremely positive reception this was receiving. So I crafted a hard-hitting response with input from three engineering deans: Tom Katsouleas of Duke University, Jim Plummer of Stanford, and Bruce Eisenstein of Drexel. We acknowledged that there are some examples of college dropouts who made it big, but argued that these are the outliers. We argued that most young people need a college education in order to achieve financial well-being and happiness in life.
A measure of success in the blogosphere is the number of “Facebook likes” and “Tweets” that a post receives. The piece against education received nearly 30,000 likes and 12,700 Tweets. In contrast, our piece received 450 likes and 400 tweets. In other words, we lost by a landslide.
Not to be deterred, I accepted an invitation by Intelligence Squared to debate Peter Thiel in Chicago at a nationally televised event. This was in October, and the topic was “Do too many kids go to college?” On my side was Northwestern University President Emeritus and Rasmussen College Chairman Henry Bienen. Thiel’s partner was political scientist and author Charles Murray.
Bienen gallantly defended the value of four-year undergraduate degrees and liberal arts education. I highlighted that parents in the countries we are competing with — India and China — are investing their life savings in their children’s education; that if we stop educating our children, Indian and Chinese children will eat our children’s lunch. I explained that students gain a lot more from college than just the education. They gain valuable social skills, such as how to interact and work with others, how to compromise, and how to deal with rejection and failure; and, critically, they learn how to learn. I argued that without the foundation that a college education provides, Americans could forever be trapped in the wrong, low-paying jobs.
The audience was highly sophisticated and educated. Yet we lost the debate, 47 percent to 46 percent. What won the day were the arguments that education has become far too expensive and that the nation’s trillion-dollar student-debt burden is the equivalent of an education bubble.
In all likelihood, this reflects the current mood of America. So, before disenchanted graduates launch a movement to occupy our universities, perhaps our educators need to look inward. It is a fact that education costs have increased disproportionately over the past two decades. It is a fact that despite advances in technology, we are essentially teaching the way we did at the turn of the century.
This can be fixed. As they do in solving the nation’s infrastructure problems, our engineers need to lead the charge. Technology has advanced so much over the past two decades that we can use it to completely change the way in which we educate. Tablet-type devices such as the iPad have become ubiquitous, and the world’s knowledge is now readily available on the Internet. The graphics capability of these devices is so advanced that we can teach students geography by taking them into virtual worlds, and teach mathematics using interactive games. Students from around the world can watch lectures from universities such as MIT and Harvard. We can have today’s Einsteins directly imparting their knowledge to millions.
If ever it was time for an education revolution, that time is now.
Vivek Wadhwa is a scholar specializing in entrepreneurship who is affiliated with Duke University’s Pratt School of Engineering, the University of California, Berkeley, Harvard Law School, and Emory University. He also advises several start-ups.