What is education, and how to get one

Historic library building at Columbia University

Some people think of college as a collection of courses you take on a beautiful campus for four years. It is so much more than that. In the following I try to provide a way of thinking about what college actually is while also constructing an answer to what it might be in the future.


In David Leonhardt’s NYTimes article “College for the masses”, the author highlights what research has shown in an overlooked benefit of completing college:

Its graduates have managed to complete adulthood’s first major obstacle course. Doing so helps them learn how to finish other obstacle courses and gives them the confidence that they can, so long as they stay focused. Learning to navigate college fosters a quality that social scientists have taken to calling grit.

So much of the college experience is simply the development of this grit, the persistence needed to overcome obstacles, big and small, in pursuit of an overarching goal: What classes should I take? How can I learn this material? How can I pass this class? Where is this class being taught? How can I clear up this confusion about my meal plan account? How can I arrange my time so that I have clean clothes to wear, have some fun, make some friends, and do well enough to stay enrolled? How can I get an answer from this person who isn’t responding to my email? How can I pay for this educational experience? How can I get a job? What kind of job do I want? And so on…

Students need to be able to solve all kinds of problems that crop up in order to get through the maze that is an undergraduate college education. Every college provides a different answer to the question “How, and how much, should we help a student solve the problems facing him/her?” This help comes in the form of professional and peer counselors for academic, co-curricular, and extra-curricular activities. It is demonstrated by the length of the lines for help, by the speed at which email answers are received and the helpfulness of those answers.

Two questions

A college or university — its people, places, processes, and organizational structure — is the organization’s answer to the question “What does it mean to be educated?” It is certainly not just a collection of courses. If that were so, then online learning would arguably easily and quickly fully replace the vast majority of colleges and universities worldwide. An institution of higher education is a highly internetworked set of resources and processes, of which faculty and classes are certainly important but are not alone in determining the quality of the educational experience.

The rise of easily accessed high quality online courses may actually end up diversifying and strengthening the answers the colleges and universities construct to this answer. In a WSJ essay “The Future of College: It’s online”, Daphne Koller (of Coursera) makes the following point:

At the same time, universities will devote considerably more effort to activities that occur outside the classroom, be it research, individual mentoring by faculty or senior students, team activities, volunteering, internships, study abroad, and many more types of work and experience. Universities will largely distinguish themselves not by the content they deliver, but by the activities that support and enhance core learning activities.


Right now colleges and universities are like the Comcast (or similar) cable service that so many of us can purchase — a big bundle of services for a relatively high cost. Very few students will be interested in the Aviation Club but, don’t worry, the university will have more than a thousand other clubs that the student might join. Yes, that means that each student’s tuition has to support the extra expense (from his/her point of view) of those other 1000+ clubs, but this is the cost of ensuring that the university will probably have a few clubs that the student is actually interested in.

This same analogy can be extended to many other dimensions of the college or university experience. Just as Netflix, Sling TV, HBO Now, and many other services have risen up to disrupt the cable television industry, so have Coursera, edX and others acted towards higher education. But for a person who wants to receive the equivalent of an undergraduate education, he/she has to, first, answer the question “What does it mean to be educated?“ and, second, construct and successfully complete a series of experiences, academic and otherwise, that would enable the student to gain the academic learning and the grit that would fulfill the requirements of his/her answer to the first question. The challenge for the “graduate” then would become that of convincing the world of the quality of the answers to both questions!

I don’t think I have to explain how difficult and confusing this would be if potential hiring organizations were confronted with this for each person who walked in the door looking for a job.

Answering the questions

How do we currently do this? We outsource. We have accrediting organizations whose very reason for existing is to ensure that colleges and organizations meet a reasonable expectation for providing an education (I’m waving my hands and leaving out a lot of details here). This allows us to trust that if a person graduated from a college or university that we have heard of, then we can believe that the person meets some standard expectation we might have related to what it means to be educated. It allows the interested hiring party to focus on the details that he/she is interested in rather than the bigger picture that would distract and complicate the overall process.

An opportunity

Right now, colleges and universities provide a useful bundling of services and experiences. Graduates get an education — academic knowledge and grit. Society (private and public organizations) gets relatively easily understood resources (i.e., educated citizens) that is has learned to allocate in productive ways. An opportunity exists for a new type of organization to structure a virtual education from a set of unbundled educational experiences, services, and classes that are pre-approved to grant the person who completes them as a “graduate”. (That is, an accreditation agency would sign off on this organization’s claim that a graduate has been educated.) This should reduce the cost of completing the education while also making it easier for students to complete since the answers to the two questions are, if not fully answered, at least extensively outlined for them.

I, for one, am waiting for such an organization to appear. It would certainly make higher education potentially more competitive, higher quality, less expensive and open to more people.

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