Zach nails it in this comic, the paradox that in an era of an enormous, free, accessible information, it costs more than ever to get a college education. A determined person could be much better educated in a year of free Internet learning than an entire undergraduate degree. A college degree is a social rubric, a status symbol to show that you are willing to waste an enormous amount of time and money in order to fit into an organization, which shows that you will be willing to conform to whatever silliness awaits you in employment.
We have confused education for knowledge and thinking, which is a shame, because knowledge and thinking are so vital to our own personal happiness and to society's prosperity. Education should have two goals:
- Convey basic knowledge and cognitive skills (i.e. reading, arithmetic).
- Teach students how to learn and think outside of school.
In order to succeed, the student must enjoy learning. In families where children are not encouraged to learn, early childhood education is essential so that children will enjoy learning and not be at a discouraging disadvantage from which most never recover. We should also discourage competition and testing while the basics are being taught (beyond the evaluations that are needed to determine if the student is ready to be taught more advanced information).
Competition can be a great motivator for those with natural talent in a given skill, but it embarrasses and discourages pursuit of those skills by those with less natural ability. That is true in academics as well as athletics. It is essential that all students advance to the level where they learn how to learn and think outside of school - and that rarely happens if they associate reading with failure.
What colleges should not be are giant lecture halls teaching information. Once you learn how to learn and think on your own, then that is a waste. Likewise, college should not provide job training because that information will rapidly be obsolete, probably before the student enters the workforce. Which is why learning how to learn is so important for employment. Once on the job, a hands-on apprenticeship is superior to learn infinite employment specifics.
What college should be is mentoring. The Internet has lots of information, but is isn't good at answering questions, explaining what you don't understand, and in particular guiding the student through complex thinking. Interaction between the teacher and between students helps to challenge our thinking, and it also satisfies the social interaction which we crave. I think this is self-evident, but is getting lost as we increasingly look at primary education as a public cost rather than a public good, and at college education as a career investment rather than a personal investment. We are all the worse for it.