I've had lots of people ask me my thoughts on this article by Techcrunch's Sarah Lacy: "Peter Thiel: We're in a Bubble and It's Not the Internet. It's Higher Education."

And let me start by saying "thanks" -- I'm glad you think my opinion on education would be relevant, interesting, important, whatever. True, I spend almost all my time thinking about it, even though I'm no longer a college student or an educator. But, really, who am I to declare higher ed broken, bankrupt or bubbly?

Here's what I know: I taught at the University of Oregon for about seven years -- from 1999 to 2007. And during that time, I felt as though I had an increasing number of students in my classes who seemed unprepared and uninterested in college. They weren't particularly stupid, don't get me wrong. Nor were they particularly bright. But more importantly, they didn't particularly care to learn. They just wanted to have a good time; they wanted a degree, and every class was simply one more step through the various graduation requirements.

Was this attitude a sign of the rise of the "higher education bubble" that Thiel describes? Or was it the rise during these same years of the UO's status as a sports powerhouse? I don't know. The timing is certainly interesting. But even though I would complain a lot about what I perceived as the declining intellect and interest of some undergrads, who the hell am I to say that, writ large, they should or shouldn't be there. Who the hell am I to say "beware the bubble!" and "drop out, kids!"

It's Complicated

See, it's complicated. And it's not, as Lacy's opening sentence taunts salaciously, such a shocking and radical thing to question our education system. It's not, as Thiel argues in the article, taboo or dangerous to say the system is broken. Undergrads know it. Grad students know it. Professors know it. Parents -- writing checks and welcoming their unemployed/unemployable college-educated children back home to live with them again -- know it. With student loan defaults on the rise, banks know it. (The New York Times reported yesterday that student loan debt will surpass $1 trillion this year.) With the predatory practices of for-profit colleges coming under scrutiny, the government knows it.

Yet none of this means that education doesn't matter, that things aren't worth fixing (or -- pick your verb here -- disrupting). And none of this means education isn't worth it.

But again, "worth" is a frustrating term here. If you run some sort of numbers game where you track the cost of a college education, the income benefits afforded by a degree, offset by the opportunity cost of six years spent this way, offset by the student loan debt that never goes away, your calculations really prove little other than the fact that you have a very mechanical and unimaginative view of what education actually affords. A hedge fund manager's assessment of education, I'd even say.

I can give you my assessment of education. That would be an education technology journalist's assessment. It would be, as I write in my bio, a recovering academic's assessment. It would be a white American woman from a middle-class background's assessment. It would be a straight A student's assessment. My experiences. Based on my education.

It's Personal

And that's the thing. What education affords is, I think, different to each of us. It depends on who we are, what we want, where we come from. Despite the general sorts of financial pressures and the societal expectations, education is necessarily deeply personal, deeply individual. So it's a mistake to make sweeping generalizations about who wins and loses, who should and shouldn't attend, who should and shouldn't have access to a college degree, what education and learning should look like. It's hard to argue that school is totally awesome or totally a waste of time because we all have different capabilities, different experiences, different expectations, different goals, different paths to learning.

Me, I had a solid public school education growing up in Wyoming. I was always a good student, until high school when I rebelled. My parents sent me away to a private school in England, where I continued to get up to "no damn good" but where nonetheless I had a superb education. I went to Johns Hopkins for two years, and still being a troublemaker, I dropped out. I got pregnant. But when my son was about 9 months old, I went back to school, finishing my bachelor's, going on to get a master's, and well, you know the story: I am now a PhD drop-out too. I've got some $40,000 in student loan debt that I'll probably never pay off. But whatever. I didn't go to school to get rich or to be, as the Techcrunch article suggests is the real motivation for a college education, "set for life." I went to school, I stayed in grad school because I love to learn. I still learn every single day. But that's just me.

I'm also the parent of a soon-to-be college-age kid, a smart kid but one who I've never pressured to pursue the college thing, in part because he's always hated school. He's toying with the idea of culinary school. He thinks he might want to work in a greenhouse. Maybe he'll go to community college. But he's 18. Really, he has no clue. The only stipulation I've made, although I'm here to support whatever path he chooses: no student loans. Not now, at least. Not until he knows what the hell he's doing with himself.

I'd like to see my son travel when he gets out of school this spring. I've suggested he pack up and visit family abroad. I have a cousin who lives in Thailand that said he'd be willing to have him stay there. I think that sounds like an amazing educational opportunity.

Honestly though, if I had a daughter, I'm not sure I'd feel the same way about any of this. See what I mean? It's incredibly personal. It's really about the individual.

It's a Problem

The myth that a college degree ensures your future success is no doubt a dangerous one. I have heard firsthand students proclaim that they'll "easily" graduate with a BS in Business and land a six figure job. Go Ducks! But when they don't (and they don't), I don't think we can simply blame students' naivete. I know people with law degrees from Georgetown that are struggling to find jobs. And don't even ask me about the number of PhDs in English that are currently unemployed.

So yes, hell yes, there are problems with higher education right now -- the emphasis on football and business degrees being two things I'll happily rail against. But I'm not eager to swap the myth of the college diploma for the myth of the college dropout. And just so I'm clear: I'm particularly suspicious when this myth is being promulgated by a multimillionaire with a law degree from Stanford.

For those keeping score at home, dropping out of college is already pretty common. It happens without the incentives offered by Thiel (he's giving 20 students $100,000 to drop out and become entrepreneurs a la Mark Zuckerberg, in whom Thiel famously invested in first). About 30% of students drop out of school during their freshman year. And less then 30% of students complete their degrees in four years.

I can't help but think that these statistics point to a crisis in higher education of a far different sort than just "a bubble." And to me at least, they demonstrate that the hullabaloo that Thiel is making about higher ed really misses the mark. We struggle in this country with college preparedness. We struggle with college completion. We place a lot of value on a diploma (a "sign" of education), but do we really place the same value on actual knowledge? Are we providing everyone with the necessary access and skills?

Knowledge and Power

So in conclusion (holy shit, phew!) I think Lacy's Techcrunch story conflates several important points here. They're interconnected, sure, because they're all part of Thiel's spiel. But if you just take her story at face value, you miss what should actually be a pretty nuanced analysis about what education means and what education is "worth."

If you frame the story of higher education in terms of Thiel's argument -- Ivy League schools are over-valued -- and his actions -- paying students from those very elite academic backgrounds to ditch the degree to become entrepreneurs under his tutelage -- well, in return you get these oddly protectionist responses from the likes of Vivek Wadhwa (a vocal proponent of education who I really do admire) that end up looking like they're propping up what is, I think many of us agree, a deeply flawed system.

A final note then (one that is conflating plenty of points as well, I do realize): We already do too much to exploit college-age kids. Take a look at what we do to college athletes. Take a look at who profits. I've seen the repercussions of that firsthand in the classroom. So at the end of the day, I'm just really wary of people in power, people in suits, people with a bullhorn, people with money luring kids down a path that suits their needs and arguments and really has little to do with education, learning, or a better future -- for them, for any of us.

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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