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Is Higher Education The Next Bubble? (mindingthecampus.com)
43 points by ivankirigin on Jan 24, 2009 | hide | past | web | favorite | 55 comments

He doesn’t mention it much but I really think the problem with Higher Education is that people are starting to realize how useless it’s become. I'll tell you how I became convinced of this.

(this is kind of long for a HN post but it's a funny story)

I was having a discussion with a room full of college graduates recently. The meeting was about how managers should, when they have to order employees to do something, go in with the mindset of convincing the employees that the decision is wise rather than just dictate it to them. In the discussion I jokingly said something like "Don’t go all Lenin on them". They countered by saying they didn’t understand what I meant. After a short and very confusing discussion I said I didn’t understand how they could equate what I was saying to what was done in Communist Russia. They responded by asking what Russia had to do with anything?

At that point it hit me: They were talking about John Lennon. They had no idea who Vladimir Lenin was.

The reason this had such an impact on me (aside from the obvious) is this: I’ve long been convinced that universities simply don’t care about practical skills anymore. A Computer Science graduate, for instance, can often graduate without having ever written a line of html, javascript or css. But the one excuse Universities had was that at least they were still teaching culture. This incident dispelled that myth for me and at that point I had lost all faith in the current university system.

I still believe in education but I don't believe Universities are providing a good one anymore.

First off, I've read HN for a while and never felt the need for an account. This post provided that need. Thank you.

"A Computer Science graduate, for instance, can often graduate without having ever written a line of html, javascript or css."

In the interest of full disclosure I hold a BS in Computer Engineering and am currently working on a MS in Computer Science. I myself graduated without ever writing a single line of HTML, JavaScript, or CSS in any course and have yet to write a single line in my MS.

We used Assembler (16 and 32-bit, Motorola and Intel), C/C++, and Java. I never wrote HTML, but was required to write a basic web server that provided access to HTML pages. I didn't write any JavaScript, but did write code for embedded systems.

Point is no Computer Science student should ever write those as part of the program. For one, any student of CS worth their weight in salt can teach themselves such things. And the only time it's acceptable in the class room of a quality program is when the Professor asks for the documentation of the program to be an HTML page. In that case HTML, JavaScript, and CSS are an afterthought, not the point of the project, and not taught in the class room.

The difference is that you're seeing the value of a (good) college education, whereas most of the people who post the anti-intellectual rants here, in Reddit, and elsewhere want to view the sole purpose of higher education as vocational training. If it doesn't teach you Javascript, it must be useless!

(That these same people tend to develop fetishes for math and physics is an interesting aside; I've never met a mathematician or a physicist whose attention is drawn to practical questions.)

How large is your sample? The heroes of the field, Gauss, Euler, John von Neumann, Feynman etc, were certainly drawn to practial questions.

Pretty large. Those guys are in a rather select minority, and one could reasonably argue that their original intent was not to pursue practical knowledge. It just happened that they were amongst the lucky few academics whose work was valuable in its time. It does happen, occasionally, but it isn't the driving force behind most scientific/mathematical research.

Why is it anti-intellectual to question the value of higher education?

When someone rants against college, he or she usually includes those things that colleges teach. He or she claims they are impractical, inapplicable, etc.

That is pretty much anti-intellectualism summed up. Now, this is not necessary. A anti-college rant does not need to include comments as to the value of what colleges teach. It's just that many do, and they become conjoined in people's minds.

No one really learns anything just for the sake of knowing stuff. They always do so to derive some benefit. This is even the case for "impractical" knowledge. Usually this kind of knowledge is of principles instead of techniques for doing X. Principles are useful to know because A) they are what techniques are derived from so now people can derive their own techniques and B) there is innate satisfaction from the beauty and elegance in the principles behind things. Since everything we do is for the sake of some kind of happiness, knowledge qualifies as something like sex or entertainment, activities people engage in for their own sake.

Those, like yourself, who deride people for asking about "practicality" and "applicability" probably really do think knowledge is useful for the reasons I outlined. What do you gain by dismissing such questions as "anti-intellectual" instead of trying to understand and explain why you think learning is useful?

Because fundamentally, you're questioning the value of education. The intellectual doesn't pursue knowledge with a particular goal in mind. From that perspective, complaining about the "value" of a class on (for example) philosophy or English literature doesn't make any sense.

Practical questions are boring, mathematically. Engineers get by with the most basic of linear algebra and diffeq. This is boring, mindnumbing mathematics. There are few applications of, say, category theory to real life.

So for the most part, the interesting problems are not in daily life. Most of those have been solved.

> There are few applications of, say, category theory to real life.

...and there you have nicely summed up why CS appeals to me as a field: it is an arena in which interesting, contemporary mathematics can have an immediate and practical application in solving real-world problems.

I agree that theory is more appropriate than specific tool training at university, but it's an exaggeration that web technologies are necessarily an afterthought.

And I disagree with your disagreement. If you have done plenty of coding on embedded systems, compilers, implementing data structures, etc., HTML and the like are very easy to pick up.

You can go on the web and find yourself some tutorials, and at the end you'll do some decent web programming. But try to find some good tutorials about processor architecture, memory cache, digital circuits... and it's much, much harder to end up proficient without any guidance (it sounds easy if you know these already - but imagine you had no notion at all of digital circuits, where do you start? how do you even know it's important?). University doesn't necessarily teaches you everything in depth but it does at least expose you to the various implications of programming, such that if you end up in a big project, whatever it is, you'll know the basics and where to find the information.

Web technologies are also hinted at during the process, so if you need them later, you at least have some basic notions (from building a web server, etc).

uni only exposes you the materials it deems important (or corrupted by industry)

nothing prevents a passionate person to google, buy the book if necesary, and email the experts in fields

"He doesn’t mention it much but I really think the problem with Higher Education is that people are starting to realize how useless it’s become."

In my opinion, vast swathes of many college programs are currently completely replaceable by online courses. The only thing preventing this from being acceptable to employers is the college mystique. If the college mystique gets punctured... and I can't think of a faster way than to jack the price up beyond what anybody can afford... and it becomes acceptable to have an online degree, what happens to conventional colleges then? On a pure dollar-for-dollar comparison, the online colleges will kill conventional colleges for value.

You might find this hard to believe if you went to college and took some actually non-trivial course, such as in engineering. Leave engineering and the hard sciences, though, and a lot of courses are just mind-bogglingly trivial to pass. As part of a learning content management system I worked on while in school, I once had to debug a junior-level marketing course, so I took some of the pop quizzes from the middle of the course. I got 7/10 and 8/10... and there are people who actually attended the course who didn't do that well.

I shouldn't be able to score 8/10 on a pop quiz for a junior level course in an unrelated discipline. There probably wasn't a single 300-level engineering or hard science course I could have done that on. But... not everybody going to college are getting degrees like that. (And, ultimately, quite a lot of even the hard courses could be moved online with little loss...)

(I said "vast swathes of many college programs" very carefully. There are yet some programs that aren't very replaceable, and will always have a physical component. Another way for a college to get around this is to make their courses less able to be taken remotely, although as technology marches on it gets harder and harder to imagine what exact form that would take... A lot of people complain about various problems with online courses vs. real courses but I find myself wondering how much of that is truly fundamental, vs. how much of that could be fixed with better technology.)

I'm not sure I could agree with "useless", but "poor value" and "easily replaceable with a cheaper but just-as-good-maybe-better substitute" I sure could agree with.

If some startup could get past the accreditation hurdle...

Leave engineering and the hard sciences, though, and a lot of courses are just mind-bogglingly trivial to pass.

the problem is that everyone wants to cozy up to the hard sciences because it makes you look more legitimate. blatant scientism has infected higher education.

I wasn't aware this was a controversial point. Every humanities class I've been in had a textbook full of sciency sounding words that don't actually exist (the authors made them up). Most professors I've talked with have said this happened in the 60's and 70's when people first realized they would get more grants if they included a lot of math and science vernacular in their grant applications.

it's true, just look at the papers of less-hard disciplines nowadays ... more math ... more symbols, greek vars, less illustrations etc

if you can't convince, confuse them

I think I basically agree with you. I think any solution (online, trade schools, etc…) is going to be effective in certain circumstances. The bottom line for me is that the current system has established not only a monopoly but almost a religion around how things are taught. Which means no one can innovate even though the current system appears to be failing (though I will admit saying "useless" above was probably over stating the point)

What needs to be done is we as a society need to find a way to break that monopoly/religion down and establish a system where Innovation of all kinds can take place.

The problem with the 'religion' as you put it is that no one wants to admit they have been believing something that isn't true, so there will be incredible resistance to change.

Imagine if you went out and paid $40k for a super sweet TV, and then some friend comes over and tells you about his TV, which is actually better than yours and only cost $2k. You aren't going to believe him no matter what he says, because doing so is admitting that you did something very very stupid.

The same is true for higher education. At the undergrad level, outside of certain technical areas, the entire value of the degree is due to the belief that it is valuable. As long as more or less everyone continues to believe the degree itself has inherent value, it will continue to be valuable. Even if something obviously better and cheaper comes along, those that have bought the proverbial $40k TV are going to continue to insist it is better, for fear that admitting otherwise will make their degree worthless.

Look, I'm the last person who would assert that a liberal undergraduate education is a necessity for everyone -- I dropped out of a high-priced, prestigious liberal arts college after a year, started coding for a living, and think I made the right decision. That being said, there is real value to be found even in the "soft" classes at such institutions.

While any college likes to tell potential students and parents that they'll teach their students "how to learn," the truth is that most kids do still have a lot of cognitive development to do at 18 years old, and even more social and professional. Being able to spend several hours a day arguing about complex and nuanced subjects with other bright young people (all under the supervision of a facilitator with a very high level of expertise in the subject under discussion) is an almost priceless experience.

That being said, it shouldn't cost $50k/year just to be able to have those discussions. Moving some of the content online will help (though some amount of face-to-face interaction is still a must to develop good social graces IMHO). Cutting down on the level of pampering should be a first step, too -- at 19 years old, there's little excuse for someone to be unable to cook for themselves, or find a place to live.

I think of "hard" and "soft" classes as being analogous to search. Before you can search for anything, you need to be able to know what you are looking for and define what it means to find it. That is the sort of thing "soft" classes are about, understanding what we really want and thinking through our decisions carefully.

The "hard" classes, on the other hand, basically consist of a bunch of search techniques and search optimizations for existing problem domains. So, "soft" classes teach you how to define your own problems and "hard" classes teach you how to solve existing problems.

I absolutely agree with you but I'm not sure how that changes anything. No matter how much resistance there is it needs to be done

Oh I agree something needs to be done. I guess what I am saying is that instead of replacing the current system, whatever comes next will just add another layer to it. Instead of having the bachelor's degree as the golden ticket to employment, everyone will start to see the master's degree as the gold standard.

This might finally allow for some innovation at the undergrad level, but the end result will be the same: in an effort to handle so many students suddenly interested in pursuing a MS/MA, schools will lower the quality of education and dilute the value of the graduate degree. Then it'll start again with something else.

To actually abolish the current system and take up something new would require people with current degrees admitting they aren't the sole route to success, which is like saying you know the $2k TV is just as good, but you preferred to pay $40k anyway. This just won't happen.

My CS degree cost ~30,000 and took 3.5 years. I personally thought it was well worth it and a fairly good deal.

If you are an instate student who does not live on campus it's less than 3k / semester including books. So 12k pays for a degree that includes face time with actual teachers. I think I had one class with more than 35 students.

  Four Year Program Student Fees 2008-09:
  Fall and Spring Sessions:
  Tuition and Fees	$ 2,449.00	
  Room	2,153.00	
  Board  (19 Meal Plan)	1,599.00	
  TOTAL:	$6,201.00	

  Tuition and Fees	$ 6,406.00
  Room	2,153.00
  Board  (19 Meal Plan)	1,599.00
  TOTAL:	 $10,158.00
I know MIT and Harvard both accepted some credits when students transferred so it's not a "low end" education.

PS: I got a 4 on AP English and after talking their test I was dumped into a remedial class. I thought this was insane until I took English 101.

"At the undergrad level, outside of certain technical areas"

So the technical areas are good but of course university teaches such meaningless stuff as umm hmm duno (put something meaningless here)

The problem is, as the above quote clearly shows, inherent biases towards believing that a certain degree is better than some other one which is then taken further towards suggesting that education as a whole is "useless" or not good enough.

Education is the most genius way that mankind has come up with to develop the brain. There are things wrong with education of course, but pop culture debate helps none at all.

I personally believe that education will not be improved until and only until the opinions of the students are taken into consideration.

Oh I didn't mean that the technical areas are totally hunky-dory. I was just pointing out that at least you could drop out midway through and still have something useful to show for it (technical knowledge of some sort). Dropping out of your average liberal arts major won't leave you much that is directly applicable to a job. It's the degree that matters.

Both areas have their problems for sure. In fact the technical majors suffer from having a ton of people in them that don't really find the material interesting, they just want a good paycheck after they graduate.

With all due respect, if that one data point has caused you to lose all faith in the current university system, I can only infer that that one university failed for you. The first reason could be the story, but the second reason is because of this exaggerated generalization.

The other thing that you can infer, is that the existence of institutions that fail to teach good reasoning (and practical knowledge) is a failure of the regulatory system, that inspects and certifies the quality of educational institutions.

Well actually it was 6 data points for the record. But I openly admit that the results from that incident reinforced an opinion I already had (which, if I am wrong, is far more likely to be the reason why). As for regulation I don’t agree on that. Regulators can only look at what is being taught and whether they are testing correctly for what is being taught. So they can’t really tell the difference between a class that teaches people to memorize facts long enough to regurgitate them at the end of the year and a class that teaches things in a way that’s compelling enough to get the students to remember.

> really tell the difference between a class that teaches people to memorize facts long enough to regurgitate them at the end of the year and a class that teaches things in a way that’s compelling enough to get the students to remember.

That actually reinforces my point, and tells me that you actually agree with me. If we assume it is the duty of the regulators to make sure that the educational institution is doing its job properly (and how to measure "properness" is also the responsibility of the regulators -- after all, they have the role of gatekeepers!), then if what you said is true, it is precisely a case of a regulator's failure.

Aside of that, I realized how you could have validly arrived at your conclusion (lost all faith): if all you have seen is bad universities, then your generalization is probabilistically correct. Now it's really none of my business, but I can assure you that the belief is factually incorrect, because there do exist very good universities. That you were not able to experience the benefits of one is an unfortunate, but separate problem of the system.

I don’t think regulation is primarily to blame here but I’ll concede that regulation needs reform to. On the failure of Universities I said I’d lost faith in the University system but that doesn’t mean I believe every university is a bad one. I’ve lost faith in our Prison system’s ability to rehabilitate people because most criminals get out and commit more crime. But that doesn’t mean there are no cases of criminals being rehabilitated.

I think most universities are flawed to the point of not justifying their costs. But I fully acknowledge there are some that earn their fee and then some.

My wife is currently going through college because she needs certification. However when we worked it out she's paying the equivalent of $80 every time she walks into a class, yet for an entire 2 hour class they were taught how to fold a business letter (she didn't attend, we went out the night before because she already knew how pointless the class would be), I made the nice point that the dollar store sells a letter folder. So they paid $80 for something that can easily be done for $1.

This isn't to mention that her books can basically be bought only through the college bookstore because they add some tiny unnecessary thing in and double the price. Her Machine Transcription book (like $50 off amazon) came with a foot pedal (we've seen ones with the same basic functions for $20) and she was forced to pay $150 because they didn't say what make the foot pedal was or what software it came with.

Higher Education is essentially a scam. At 16 I started working as a reviewer, my editor said that he avoided taking anyone who'd been through college and university because they didn't know how to speak their own voice. The most successful journalism today (where the money is) is a form of Gonzo (IE Hunter S. Thompson), I mean read the main articles in Wired and they're Gonzo. Yet Journalism courses don't teach that and they can't, because there's never going to be a course that can teach you to be unique.

I ended up reading many things from magazine and newspaper editors. I can't remember the guys name anymore but he was editor of the Times newspaper, he said whenever an application appeared on his desk, if it included taking Journalism in college or university anywhere except at the bottom of the list he'd throw it straight in the trash. So basically, if you wanted to work for Times Newspaper when he ran it you had a better chance if you was anyone but a journalism graduate! His reasoning was precisely that they don't know how to write news that sells. He said that he'd prefer someone who had good personality in their writing and build them up from there, because all the journalism graduates thought that going through university entitled them to a job and most didn't even send samples of their work in, which IMHO is patently moronic.

So, you pick one example of a bad school, and you conclude that all of "higher education is a scam". Nice.

I don't know what kind of college your wife is attending, but it sounds suspiciously like a University-of-Phoenix-ish institution. In 11 years of post-secondary education, I never once took a class on letter-folding.

I'm curious, what was the job that required this certification? Why would the employer require her to take this useless course?

Its to become a paralegal. All employers in Ontario require you to go through the process, but from what we've asked people the first year is completely and utterly useless (thank the ontario government!) and the second year is break-your-back hard because you basically have to learn everything in one year.

This whole thing is caused by the government allowing all forms of office administration (Medical, Legal, Realty, etc.) to group their first year together. This means everyone who takes any of these courses has to pay thousands of dollars and the colleges group multiple courses into one to save money.

The ironic thing is that legal offices are desperate for workers, my wife already has a job offer from one of our family friend's place. The starting wage there for a paralegal is like $70,000 because they have such a shortage.

edit: Basically the course isn't useless, it's just the ontario government allows colleges to rip you off in the first year. This is after the government of Canada allowed the Teachers Union to get so much control they control everything they even have their own credit union, plus if you work in any college or university in ontario your children get everything (except books) for free, kindly paid for by everyone else.

i agree with the editor

by definition, uni will always lag and revert to mean -> the graduates will be slow and average (or not unique)

most of the stuffs i used every day wasn't taught in uni.

i'll use python/linux paradox for filtering new hires; huge bonus for lisp/bsd

my friend (a prof) told me that publishers approach her with new textbooks (the 'new' stuff is really just the changing words, numbers and units on problem sets) ... she ends up using older editions so students can buy used

i remember that in almost all of my math courses (esp the graduate courses) i wasn't required to buy books (the prof wrote pdf notes and post in on his site)

i find that no-bullshit courses tend to less corrupt

When the Education Bubble Finally Pops:



Higher education is indeed one of the few remaining areas of "fat" in today's economy. However, the fat is certainly not in the teaching staff but rather in the "fixed costs" - the "bulding binge" which the article only obliquely refers to.

One thing I'd like folks to consider, however. After all the fat is cut, who will buy anything?

The housing boom was all fat and got the economy going for six years. But without it, we're in a bit of trouble. Start cutting higher education too and what happens? Does efficiency create demand? Where is the evidence?

I'm coming to find more and more that the most valuable part of school was athletics. They teach you how to focus ambition into practice for self-improvement. Since you can assume that everything you do professionally is going to require new skills that you need to learn yourself, the improvement skill seems critical. I learned it through sports.

No, because education is an important marker of social class. Where you went to school, for how long, and what you studied defines who you are and where you belong in the social hierarchy in the United States absent aristocratic relations or extreme wealth.

Actually, I think who you know has a lot more weight than what you studied. Just look at the rich and famous who barely finished high school...

Right, which is a proxy for where you went to school and my disclaimer about wealth and aristocratic connections.

I think the article doesn't really take into account that the student body also affects the return one might get from higher ed. This is argued here: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=448588.

It is more likely that higher ed is not going to burst like a bubble. Instead, demand for it will scale back down gradually to a point where the return those who get a higher education is worth the price tags. For it to be like a bubble something like a phase-transition in the way a college education is perceived would be necessary. However, it seems more likely that this perception is bound to change slowly and gradually instead.

Looking at this from a strictly economic point of view, it is obvious that as the price of higher education continues to outpace inflation, a point must come when is negative expected value to attend college. Knowledge will be your reward. And debt.


The fact this got 4 upvotes suggests the article is right.

The fact that s/he got 4 upvotes suggests that few people here think he is right. Or few people here even saw his comment. But it has little bearing on whether he actually is.

I'm assuming a) he made the comment b/c he went to college and b) 4 upvotes is a significant amount for this thread. If college taught him to think well, he should be able to give a better reply than "No." If those agreeing with him agree because they also went to college, they should point this out instead of just upvoting him.

Maybe they did somewhere else. His response does not leave much to discuss however (perhaps a better reason for the low number of points).


I will make this comment only because I perceive that it is mostly people who are much older than me and left education a while ago that are commenting.

To me personally ( I have not read the article imply replying to the comments) seems that people are generalising excessively and most importantly being very simplistic.

Education is a very very very big thing, education almost encompasses life itself and everything that life entails. As such it is not very easy to find the right answer to the question of: how can we best develop the youngsters of today for the skills of tomorrow.

For me personally I believe that the only way we can improve our educational system is by listening to the students and their criticisms or compliment for afterall it is them who are going through the day to day experiences of being taught. This approach is not perfect of course, but then hey nor is life. I simply think it is a much better aproach than allowing those who have been in a classroom 30 years ago dictating the order of the day although the posibilities are rather high that they have lost touch with the educational system.

That is only one part but then academia is so uterly complex as to take into consideration the hierarchical society that we find ourselves in and maybe conciously or uncoinciously upper the standart for some places while lowering it for others.Maybe against even this taking students view into consideration can counterbalance it.

I (relatively recently) studied at a UK university (among the top 10 according to league tables: a classic "oxford reject" university) so I'm not sure how transferrable my experiences are to the US education system. The UK's isn't quite as expensive ("only" about 1/5 to 1/6 of median gross income in tuition), but I certainly did notice that the majority of students seemed to be there primarily because their parents wanted them to, and/or because their secondary school teachers had basically tuned them towards university. Not because they were genuinely seeking the cerebral stimulation of their studies. The open days, etc. were also geared towards that attitude: parents, your kid will be safe here and is practically guaranteed a respectable middle class job after graduating; kids, it won't be so bad, look at all the non-studying activites you can do!

I'd actually have to include myself into that group: I was basically pressured into studying physics by my parents and my physics teacher. Studying CompSci or EE or whatever never was on the table in the first place, after all that would've been an investment into the stuff that was causing me to go to bed late and doze at school, not for what I was winning prizes at school and beyond. Equally out of the question was not attending university: that's not what upper middle class kids do.

Now halfway through my degree, I became self-aware and figured out that it was all crazy and it was all just leading me into the rat race, so I decided to try to make the best of the remaining time, but most students never did - they graduated and applied for jobs at companies that were recruiting at the university or they followed in their parents' footsteps. (FWIW I discovered I loved maths almost as much as programming, so I ended up taking as many mathsy modules as possible - unfortunately the university weren't flexible about this so I mostly did them without getting credit)

I have to say I doubt asking the students is going to make much of a difference. You might get better bars and sports facilities at the universities, that's about it.

I took an AI course because I wanted to learn. I learned other technologies in the non-AI modules.

I learned Lisp (aka Scheme), SQL, Prolog, CORBA, Java (I already knew C++), and Business (etc).

My grades aren't good enough to get a job (I got a 2:2) but it doesn't matter - I can run my own business with what I know.

My point is that people like yourself are the exception.

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