Bill Harrison


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In 2011, is it possible to make undergraduate and graduate degrees/licenses less expensive and equally available to everyone?

Is it necessary for college to be so expensive in 2011?

In a democratic society, why is it acceptable to keep the public relatively ignorant/degree-less, when we can recreate all textbooks, educational videos, interactive tutorials, and tests, at zero marginal cost?

Given that learning can and does occur cheaply (in time and money cost) outside of the university context, why do people HAVE to go to universities/grad schools in order to obtain the licensing to do what they want to do?

Doesn't the efficiency of the "free market" depend upon competitors to the established firms, i.e., degree-granting universities?

How can we get more experts to make their expertise available to the public?

If we cannot expect self-interested academic institutions to adapt to the digital age and do what is best for the public at large, what would it take to speed up the process of transforming those institutions to make them more open and inclusive?

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    Mar 31 2011: Speaking as a college educator, I would absolutely love to see degrees and licenses awarded based on demonstrated competence rather than time spent in classrooms (i.e. credits). We all know people who basically slept through college and exited with a degree in hand, but with little learning. We also know people who self-educate, or receive education through some other informal means, who are at least as competent as their college-educated peers. Where personal motivation meets appropriate source material, learning happens, regardless of the setting.

    Once upon a time I was told a person could sit and take the Bar Exam without a formal college education in law -- the exam was that rigorous and valid that it could stand on its own. Not sure if it's still that way now, but that is the kind of model I would suggest as a replacement for the "sit-in-class-and-get-a-degree" model we seem to have now: if you can demonstrate your prowess, you get the license/degree. If you can't, you don't, no matter what school you came from. Such a model would infuse a much-needed dose of external accountability into America's higher education system.

    The trick to making this work is coming up with assessments sufficiently rigorous and valid within their domains. I think this can and should be done. Mere pencil-and-paper exams given on a single day are not going to be enough -- I'm thinking long-term projects and oral defenses more like a thesis.

    It's interesting, though, that even some professional licensure requirements such as the FE (Fundementals of Engineering) exam which all US engineers must pass (first) before becoming licensed as a Professional Engineer in their state cannot even be taken unless the applicant has graduated from an ABET-accredited engineering program. Even at the professional level (outside the university system), the requirement of seat time at an accredited university still holds
    • Jul 18 2011: When you say 'FE exam' and 'Bar Exam' - can we think in terms of assessment instead? I'd be happier with an engineer who actually built something than wrote about it.....

      Example: a company I worked for as an admin hired a fresh-out-of-Uni IT grad as our Tech Support. He was bought a shiny new workstation, and the boxes left in his office. After a couple hours of swearing, I went by and asked what the problem was

      "I've never plugged in a computer before"
      I on the other hand, had. But couldn't apply for the post, as I don't have a degree.....
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      Jul 21 2011: Yes Tony! If degrees and licenses were awarded based on demonstrated competence and long term projects rather than time spent in classrooms, what would be possible?

      This model is already at play in existing organizations like Boy Scouts. Ie. To be ranked an Eagle status, a scout must do a service project along with other criteria (Earns a minimum of 21 merit badges, demonstrate Scout Spirit, take part in a Scoutmaster conference, etc) This criteria list could be directly translated for professional and academic degrees (ie. earn a minimum of X community hours in X field of study, complete a community service project in your field and measure its impact on society, etc.

      Schools like Evergreen College or Antioch University in Washington state are using "demonstrated competence" models for earning degrees, within an institutional setting--getting the best of both worlds.
      I was lucky enough to be benefactor of such a degree where it was earned based on field experience vs. test scores alone (We surveyed 300 residents of low income neighborhoods on their needs that was presented to our City of Seattle's Office of Sustainability and Environment who were looking at where to next allocate their budget by directly asking neighborhood residents). Students of the major were required to create a senior project--much like an Eagle Scout--and got to have real world results that impacted our community as well as build resume experience for the "real world."
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    Mar 31 2011: I suspect that in the TED community which is heavily pro-institutionalized learning and pro-teacher, and heavily invested in warm and fuzzy teacher sensibilities, suggesting that the colleges and university system change is tantamount to heresy.

    As a class, teachers publicly state they are doing a great job. They are quick to point out success stories-their greatest hits. Privately they admit they cannot reach many if not most students, particularly urban students. For generations, teachers and their unions have resisted change. So too have colleges and universities. Each new college administrator wants to stamp his imprimatur on the institution and they trumpet their changes, but nothing significant really changes. Ineffective teachers remain in place, ineffective policies remain in place. And most importantly, the middle class can no longer afford a degree, so they plunge into a huge debt and remain there after graduation, but of course, most students cannot afford any kind of loan and don't get a degree.

    Those in the educational establishment owe their jobs to some power broker. Don't expect them to have the courage to rock the boat.

    This issue begs (and revives) the question, in a weak job environment, a degree won't get you a job anyway, so why bother? But I digress.

    This subject is one of the untouchable, third rail subjects in TED. It's the skunk at the garden party. I suspect it will be ignored. Tsk, Tsk,Tsk! How dare you bring it up?

    PS Can you spell "Khan Academy"?
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    Jun 24 2011:

    As robots (sounds sci-fi, but it really isn't) start to take over even intellectually sophisticated work, we're going to need a cheaper, more flexible credentialing system/economy that actually takes advantage of the fact that all digitial textbooks, videos, etc. can be recreated at zero marginal cost.
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    Jun 21 2011: "Online learning is more flexible and affordable than the brick-and-mortar model of higher education. Certification tests could be developed so that in many occupations employers could get more useful knowledge about a job applicant than whether he has a degree. Career and technical education could be expanded at a fraction of the cost of college subsidies. Occupational licensure rules could be relaxed to create opportunities for people without formal education."


    "It is absurd that people have to get college degrees to be considered for good jobs in hotel management or accounting — or journalism. It is inefficient, both because it wastes a lot of money and because it locks people who would have done good work out of some jobs. The tight connection between college degrees and economic success may be a nearly unquestioned part of our social order. Future generations may look back and shudder at the cruelty of it.",8599,1967580,00.html
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    Apr 4 2011: Somehow, I just now saw Chris Anderson's talk on how online video changes education and allows the crowd-sourcing of innovation:

    He mentions, which shows scientists doing experiments, which are then more easily replicated by others than if the experiments had been described via text:

    And there was a NYT article today about unpaid internships, which I take as symptomatic of a deep-seated understanding that we learn mostly through apprenticeships and by doing/seeing:

    And there was an article in the Atlantic a few days ago talking about a growing backlash against higher education institutions:

    There was another article on how academics are reluctant to share their expertise on Wikipedia, despite benefiting from it:

    The way that all fits together is that video allows concentrated awesome-ness to be absorbed more cheaply and quickly than text, so it should play a larger role in how we educate and learn from one another.

    Once the lack of a difference between the quality education available for free and the overly-expensive certification available only through higher education becomes apparent to everyone, then the higher education/licensing bubble may well burst.

    Of course, we will still need research institutions, but a good chunk of research is already publicly funded.
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      Apr 4 2011: Interesting, Bill. Nice bit of legwork! Hopefully people like us, and the company I'm building, will be able to make stuff like that grow.
  • Apr 2 2011: I think Mike Rowe gave a talk on the dwindling importance of physical work in our society. I would put forth that college degrees shouldn't be something that are extended to everyone; some people are simply better at other things. We should focus more on vocational education as well, instead of simply assuming that academia is the end-all-be-all for career opportunities. If these jobs could be made more accessible (i.e. through humanizing rather than manufacturing processes) and of course more respected, the world would be better for it.

    We can't simply assume, as intellectual people, that the mind is not a multifaceted being that can be good at more than one thing, and we cannot write off vocations and skilled trades as lesser occupations.

    As for the monetary problem with college, the issue is that there is so much demand that universities (especially ones like Harvard with, for all intents and purposes, infinite endowments) can charge essentially whatever they want. Federal and State Aid programs only lessen people's worries about the cost of college, though this isn't to say that they are useless; in fact, they are a good start toward a solution. If we could somehow mandate the institutional assistance for those in need (a task obviously easier in state institutions) I think a good part of this problem could be solved.
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      Apr 2 2011: Hi Noah,

      I think you've hit on an important point, which is that higher education is more concerned with social hierarchy than practicality, fairness, or even education.

      This is partly why degrees are Giffen goods - as price increases, demand increases, because enough people believe that price signals quality that elites are drawn to more highly priced institutions, which increases the reputability of the institutions, despite that they can add minimal educational value while increasing the value of their brand.

      I have no problem with people who want to distinguish themselves from the other 7 billion people on the planet by pursuing degrees from elite institutions. If people want to pay 4 years and X money cost in order to obtain a degree, more power to them.

      My concern is that for intelligent people who are indifferent to prestige, in 2011 education is (and should be) available much more cheaply than academic institutions and licensing associations care to admit. So, why isn't licensing also cheaper?

      All videos and textbooks can be recreated at zero marginal cost - we can learn almost anything we want to over the Internet. So, if I can study/practice on my own to acquire the ability to be, for example, an amazing engineer, why should I have to pay 4 years of my life and tens of thousands of dollars in order to do so? Shouldn't a series of licensing examinations be enough to test my abilities?

      Intelligent people have nowhere else to go but to the current degree-granting institutions if they want to do anything requiring a license, lest they face fines or imprisonment. Many cannot afford to pay (and should not have to pay) the extortionate cost to self-interested institutions (and ultimately, self-interested people).

      The artificial scarcity and high cost of education/licensing is strangling the economy and wasting human potential, because we're more concerned with prestige/exclusion than disseminating learning or learning trades.
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    Mar 31 2011: I think that our political shifts happening (countries without good quality education raising their international influence) , social skills getting to be of greater value (many times more than the knowledge itself) and the wonder of free knowledge given to us, throught the internet builds up the most interesting opportunity to be "graduated" in something (to study it exactly as good as anyone else in any school or university) in our path making irrelevant the need of a certificate of some kind. As observed here in Brazil, where I live, we have great examples of such people that made their work and life expierience the confirmation of their individual knowledge achievement i.e. Miguel Juliano (architect) and Carlos Tramontina (founder and CEO of Tramontina).
    • Jul 20 2011: Philipp you have a valid point. Truth is a college degree will not help you get ahead in Silicon Valley necessarily. Perhaps degrees, like kudos, will be most valuable if granted by peers (people with the same skills/knowledge) and consumers (students/customers). This is how we all know the Salman Khan is a brilliant teacher, right?

      Degrees and licenses and credentials serve several purposes (we can all name them) but trick is how to find a good structural engineer, talented heart surgeon, and a talwented surfing instructor when you need one.

      I suspect educational institutions are in for a rough ride because of the Internet and they are busy pricing themselves out of the market anyway. Perhaps educational institutions are about to disappear like the paper book, the DVD/CD and the TV network but their vital functions will remain in a new digital, more useful/cost-effective and open form for all of us.
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    Jul 22 2011: Oh, SNAP! Even the NYT is seeing the light:

    Allow anyone to take the bar:

    Bring back apprenticeships:

    And the counterarguments are weak, particularly for law professors:

    Assume for a minute that my side is basically right. In the digital age, it's morally reprehensible and inefficient for there to be only one, extremely expensive route to obtaining a license to do what you want to do. It isn't necessary for educational institutions to charge as much as they due simply due to their monopoly power.

    Part 2 of my question is, how do we get these institutions to change, and how do we get them to do what is best for the public at large instead of what is best for their institutions and/or pocketbooks?
  • Jul 21 2011: Excellent conversation, I think educational institutions have two key functions to perform:

    1 Enable people to learn new skills/expertise/knowledge/competence
    2 Accredit levels of skills/expertise/knowledge/competence

    I agree with Bill's point and I think the functions could be separated to some extent.

    e.g. My family recently moved country and my wife had to demonstrate competency and experience to nurse through numerous methods. She also then had to sit the degree exam alongside undergraduates. After passing the tests and exam she is now able to nurse.... why not award her a degree?

    In answer to Erik's earlier question I am not bothered about where and how my doctor was educated as long as they are competent!
  • Jul 20 2011: Universities are turning into business machines who deliver a piece of paper to attest skills and knowledge who turn out to be useless in your place of work if you have any of course. 'You' make a man into a doctor who when he passes next to an accident does not readily go helping hurt persons.
    Knowledge(given more than enough), skills(Huum...may be), peace of mind(zero), understanding(zero:Poor people should die of expensive diseases for example in the cases of our doctors), gentleness/courtesy( may be if the degree holder is from a good background). What I am talking about? According to wises men of the past these were suppose to form part of the education of a university student and in between these () my own observations and evaluations which I have a feeling is not far from the real truth. Sorry if I am hurting anyone.
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    Jul 18 2011: what about removing degrees, depending on degrees given by a certain institution qualifies the student in question to becoming a good follower.........
    by follower I mean, sticking to the same method of research, learning and methods to breaking rules, eliminating other potentials, thinking differently, have other methods and ideologies

    forgetting about that people have this feature, "cope with whatever new or complex", we can change this paradigm
    get it into something more utilizing, less expensive, less depressive to new "graduates", if any, requiring less experience, experience will be there either now or later, so........, it's a management deal, not a requirement from newer employees
    I see
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    Jun 27 2011: So here's a less combative, though still innovative, approach to making college more affordable:
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    Jun 16 2011: Asymmetry not always is as bad as we feel it would be. This concept goes through everything in the world. If whatever you touch were symmetric, then it could be the possibility of not distinguish it so fine. If you remember what happened to music-recording industry when digital music exchanging began near 15 years ago, then you can have a better idea of what could happen to knowledge-giving industry if anyone could afford to any knowledge and, for that reason, obtain legitimacy in society by means of a university-granted degree. Sometimes, institutions pushes the break in order to maintain some degree of cohesiveness that could result in some kind of social structure chaotic mood. However, nothing prevents you to develop yourself by learning anything you find in libraries, internet, expert voices. In fact, when you show proof of knowledge or mastering some knowledge domain, then you may receive any academic award from this know-how-legitimating industry. Free market can indeed be well-understood if we try.
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    May 9 2011: Another story from TechCrunch, with shout-outs to Khan Academy, among other low-cost methods of learning in the comments:
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    Apr 29 2011: Another interesting story from n+1 a few days ago on the cost of college, student debt, etc.

    I wish they had titled it something other than "Bad Education," though
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    Apr 12 2011: A few more mainstream pieces on higher education in the digital age:

    Today's NYT:

    Bill Gates (last year) thinks within 5 years the best education will be online:

    Some people think higher education is a bubble:
    (Particularly the comments indicate a similar view to mine. The Internet = less expensive, high quality education. So why not less expensive, high quality licensing?)

    The Chronicle of Higher Education:
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    Apr 3 2011: Thanks for clarifying your position, Bill. I seem to have gotten the wrong impression from the phrase, "Of course, self-interested/lazy academic institutions will try to find any reason to preserve the highly profitable status quo." To me that sounds like you are accusing them of active suppression.

    Yes, you and I (and others who might join in) ARE having an online debate. The difference between two and twenty is significant, and the difficulty of registering (or misregistering) things like hostility or frustration among the conversants can have a significant impact on how fast and how well the conversation all turns out, as well as the significant inability to effectively reach and leverage students with different learning styles or exceptional needs.

    Every college I have ever attended provided options for students to test out of lower level classes, but the participation in those opportunities was remarkably small. Perhaps as the demand catches up to the supply in those scenarios, the market will adjust.
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    Apr 3 2011: In considering a shift from traditional everyone-in-a-classroom models of university education, it is important not to underestimate the cost of qualified professors to oversee the learning and assessment process. While chopping out traditional lectures, in which the professor drags through material that motivated students should have read themselves, will reduce professor hours, there will be some loss of efficiency by shifting to asynchronous courses.

    There will also have to be a revision of the process at the Ph.D. level, in order to meet the rising demand for qualified professors to serve as (what I understand to be) Oxford-style tutors for the students.

    However, even if we solve those problems, this model could only viably replace a minority subset of current lower-level college courses, because of the need for costly equipment/resources for some majors/classes and the integral importance of actual human collaboration to prepare students for the work world. A number of meaningful types of class discussions are too complex and time consuming to accomplish in an online format.
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      Apr 3 2011: If licensing/degree-granting institutions were at all interested in creating a well-educated society at low cost, education would look more like this:

      1. All courses would have a website, available to everyone.
      2. Instead of lecturing the same material repeatedly, professors would tape and post their lectures to the website once for everyone to watch/review as many times as they wish and whenever they wish.
      3. All of the readings for the courses, and the expected competencies for the students would be freely posted on the course website.
      4. Well thought out class discussions could take place online, at people's own pace, and in an environment in which everyone has Internet access.
      5. The professor could respond to frequently asked questions once and everyone could benefit from the responses to those questions, so everyone else could learn from others' mistakes, questions, and areas of confusion.
      6. Anyone with Internet access and an interest in the material could learn as much as they wanted from the course website.
      7. The professor or institution would create new quarterly examinations, which anyone could take (possibly at approved testing centers), and which, if passed would be a certification of proficiency in that subject or course.

      If class discussions are "too complex" to accomplish in an online format (which seems to me a spurious argument), then those discussions should also be placed online, so everyone can review the complex discussions as much as they wish on their own time. People can learn to collaborate and use technology online and in the working world as well.

      Of course, self-interested/lazy academic institutions will try to find any reason to preserve the highly profitable status quo, despite that people everywhere want to learn, and it is to everyone's detriment to have artificial scarcity with respect to education.The licensing monopolies were once somewhat practical, but in 2011 their failure to reform renders them illegitimate.
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        Apr 3 2011: I'm not sure why the complexity of group discussions in spurious. Do you realize how much of human communication is dependent on our body language? Beyond that, however, having taken college classes in both formats, I can testify to the limiting experience of trying to replicate a classroom debate even if everyone is logged into the site at the same time. If the course is asynchronous, as you suggest, it becomes farcical to attempt a meaningful debate on any major issue. Reading a discussion on your own time is distinctly not the same as actively participating.

        You seem to have a set up a conspiratorial perspective where any points against full-fledged change-over are pre-judged to be motivated by greed and the protection of the status quo. There are some places with online degree programs already, and there are schools like MIT that publish their lectures and course materials online for public use. There are, however, some legitimate pedagogical reasons those are not rapidly spreading throughout academia. Some of what you say is true, there are people who will resist the change. Your conclusions seem far more sweeping than the argument will validly support so far.

        I'm curious: would you take your kids to a psychologist or a doctor (or try to manage your legal affairs through a lawyer) who had been trained solely through an online program?
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          Apr 3 2011: It seems to me that we are having a meaningful debate on a major issue online, to which anyone can contribute on their own time. Although this is not identical to having a face-to-face discussion, it does give each of us time to give well-considered as opposed to off-the-cuff responses.

          You seem to be attacking a straw man - I am not advocating doing away with practical, hands-on training. Nor am I advocating doing away with face-to-face class discussions. Nor do I suggest an active conspiracy of any kind.

          To the first point, and your question, no, I would not take my child to a doctor who had been trained solely through an online program. That's not what I'm advocating, though. However, if she had completed an accredited online program, had done well on her medical board certification exams, and had successfully completed her residency, then I would have no problem whatsoever with taking my child to that doctor.

          My argument is that to the extent that teaching and learning can be made cheaper and more widely available by having educational materials digitally stored and created online for everyone, it should be done. If such education would allow current degree/certification standards to be met without classroom "seat time" or exorbitant tuition, those requirements are unjustified barriers to entry.

          There is much improvement that can easily be made in both areas. Although MIT, and many other institutions, should be lauded for their efforts to post some courses online, MIT's own Open Courseware site states:

          "OCW does not grant degrees or certificates.
          Materials may not reflect entire content of the course."

          But suppose I spent a full year of intensive study to learn what I need to know to become an amazing chemical engineer. Perhaps I was guided by a friend or family member with a degree. Should I be able to sit for the FE examination to become a licensed engineer, or do I need to spend an additional 4 years and X dollars to do so?

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          Apr 3 2011: ...

          The current education/degree system was developed pre-Internet. It doesn’t require a conspiracy for educational/licensing institutions to fail to use digital technology to make education/licensing more widely available. It only requires individual and institutional intertia. It also just so happens that these institutions profit enormously from the present system, whereas a cheaper, more widely available alternative made possible by technology would seriously cut into their profits.

          So when those same institutions say the equivalent of “No, you are not educated or capable of doing X until you pay us X money and 4 years,” AND they don’t allow competence to be tested without those requisites, there is an enormous conflict of interest with respect to the public good. What you attribute to “pedagogical reasons” for not making education/licensing cheaper can just as easily be attributed to institutional inertia and/or self-interest. It is disingenuous to call that actively “conspiratorial.”

          We learn by doing. Work experience is still necessary for engineers, and residencies are still necessary for doctors and psychiatrists. But the Internet allows a good deal of expertise to be acquired through self-study, examinations can be made more widely available to test/certify that expertise, and the remainder can be acquired through internships/apprenticeships/residencies.

          “Your conclusions seem far more sweeping than the argument will validly support so far.”

          Many people from the generations which grew up pre-Internet see the digital technology as something tacked onto traditional ways of living and learning. Those people can socialize some of the younger generation into old ways of thinking. But for the most part, younger generations take it as self-evident that the old ways of disseminating knowledge & learning must fundamentally change. The ability to recreate a book/video/tutorial for billions of people at zero marginal cost changes everything.
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          Apr 5 2011: Pardon me for jumping into the middle of a debate, but I think I might be able to add some insight here. As a college educator, I already put 100% of my course materials (including E-textbooks) online for the public to view. Students research new subjects prior to entering the classroom and then we spend nearly the entire classroom time solving problems and building higher-order thinking rather than waste time on lecture. We mostly use text rather than video like Khan Academy does, but the classroom is still "flipped" the same way.

          Many students are capable of learning at a high level with little instructor intervention. Most require assistance to overcome conceptual challenges, but this assistance takes a lot less time when they come to class having already studied new material on their own.

          The big problem with online discussions is speed: the "bandwidth" of a face-to-face discussion far outpaces that of any online forum. What takes 5 minutes of face-to-face conversation in a group takes an hour of typing and waiting for replies, and it gets even worse when students must present a math formula or a diagram! I really doubt any student would be able to learn at the same depth, *at the same pace* if they were not physically present in the classroom. However, depth of learning is not a problem given enough time.

          In fact, I have several "students" who have studied the online materials from afar, and have impressed me with what they've learned, who have never officially enrolled as students. If the college would let me, I would gladly let them challenge the assessments and gain the credit, but the state system places an (arbitrary) limit on how many credits a person may gain this way. Some fellow faculty have argued against this, feeling their job security is threatened if students don't *have* to sit for years in their classrooms to "earn" the credit.

          Pedagogical impediments do exist, but I see the bulk of the problem being institutional and cultural.
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        Jul 18 2011: 1. courses to be presented in a website:
        is education considered commerce?
        in this case, information, I guess, should be available to all, what to be monopolized is the "how to" unless the "how to" itself opens new dimensions

        2. for not repeating lectures:
        we have two scenarios:
        a. for those who agree and the agreed upon project and want to add.
        the contact should be on personal basis, they are not many (I guess)
        b. for those who wish not to go on with the project as is, want to modify or have different suggestions for different uses.
        they have the information as much as they want, the information and help increases as progress develops

        3. freely posted, free for all actually + encouragement

        4. personal discussions I guess should be

        5. repeating answers is wonderful, the more people listen to the same thing the more deep thinking arise, consequently different solutions may pop up or different alternatives to how things go

        6. internet access! (internet coverage), we can come up with a different technology to sharing information (sure could be privately owned, or a better or cheaper coverage of internet)

        7. examination to guarantee the student is a qualified student from the first scenario
        the lecture like structure of classes should be eliminated, one direction flow of information (I see)