Education: Today and Tomorrow

August 24, 2012

The state of education in the US isn’t good. It’s really not that great. My aim today is to express why that is the case, and also introduce alternatives to education that might not be well known. (Note that this article is strictly about education in the US unless otherwise stated.)

So, getting right into it — Statistics show that 25% of high school students don’t graduate, which is approximately 1 million dropouts per year. Of the 3 million students per year who graduate high school, 2.2 million attend college. Basic math then shows that roughly 70% (68.6% according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics) of students whom attend high school seek a college degree.

A 2006 survey of high school dropouts shows that 69% dropped out because they weren’t motivated to work hard, 47% dropped out because classes weren’t interesting, and 45% say that they just weren’t prepared. There are other reasons, but those were the top three.

I have this theory that public education hasn’t really changed in decades, and that kids today are more advanced than the institutions which they’re placed in. Indeed, that would explain the top two reasons high school dropouts gave for dropping out. But is it provable?

Well, students given iPads at Amelia Earhart Middle School scored 19% higher (on average) on math exams than their iPadless peers — 78% to 59%. If that isn’t proof that the problem is schools being behind the times, at least it’s an indication. And it looks like some school districts have been taking notice. I’m optimistic that iPads will help the dropout rate go down, but we’re still waiting for those results to come in.

But K-12 isn’t the only education demographic seeing problems. Remember how I mentioned above that about 70% of kids who attend high school go on to college? That isn’t as impressive as you might think, as, on average, only 53% of students whom attend a 4-year college graduate within six years. So, cut that 70% in half down to a little over 35%, and you have the rough percentage of people who graduate college with a 4-year degree. That, in my mind, is a problem.

It’s easy with K-12 to chalk the dropout problem up to schools not interesting the kids — but college students made it over the hill, they kinda like studying. So it’s interesting that so few graduate, although as a student myself I have guesses as to why.

You hear all the time about how the price of college has risen over the past so many decades, but I don’t think that it’s often put into perspective. I’ve personally heard the “if you adjust for inflation, the cost hasn’t changed much” argument thrown around, which isn’t true. At all.

In 30 years, the average cost of college tuition has risen 1,120%. That’s a very, very large percentage of growth in a very small amount of time. Meanwhile, $1 in 1982 is $2.37 today, adjusted for inflation. If my math is correct, over the course of 30 years, the US dollar has inflated 237% 137%, which is a little over one fifth one tenth the percentage that college tuition has increased.

Edit: Math was incorrectly calculated above. It has been fixed. Thanks to my friend Sebastian for pointing it out.

The textbook publishers are as bloodsucking as the universities, if not more. During the 2010-2011 school year, the average cost of textbooks for 4-year, public colleges, was $1,137. Assuming students don’t take Summer courses, that’s an average $379 per term, on top of tuition, housing, food, etc.

On top of that, here’s a neat statistic to think about: International editions of textbooks can cost “up to 90%” less than the US edition which features identical content. If you think that textbook publishers aren’t intentionally gouging students for all that they’re worth, you’re naïve.

So, I have this crackpot theory, and feel free to disregard it. As far as I know, universities and textbook publishers are run by people, and people like making money. If they can get away with charging more, why not? It’s more money in their pockets and we’ll hold our tongues since we need either the education, the degree, or both.

I’d venture to not even call those people “people”. They’re something much more degenerate. It’s extremely sad that there’s such a barrier to an education outside of high school. The people who’ve made it this way aren’t people as far as I’m concerned.

(Yes I’m aware of student loans. However, those need to be repaid with interest, it can take years to get paid off, and if you can’t pay a loan one month because you don’t have the money for whatever reason — sucks to be you. Also: Only 60% of students receive student loans.)

Putting things into perspective strictly financially, college is a bit intimidating, and the question “is it worth it?” has to surface. Especially when you consider the time you’ll have to dedicate over many years. I’d be a relatively well off car salesman if not for 30 minutes too many every Thursday at PCC a few years ago. Maybe I’m a better person by not being a car salesman, but my point stands — even if it’s as little as 30 minutes, the time you allot to college can get in the way of things you don’t anticipate.

But I digress, as few things are as important as a secondary education. I mean that, too. The stuff which I’ve learned in college has been extremely useful outside of it… except history. “Monumental waste of money” is a more proper title! But be it astronomy, or statistics, or writing, or political science, or even accounting, you don’t know how useful the knowledge is in the real world until you’ve learnt it.

So we’re at a crossroads. On one hand, college is a potential financial mess with uncertain benefits. Although on the other hand, college can make you a better person and open you up to a world of different ideas. Fortunately we live in 2012 and have access to genuine alternatives which are cheaper, and potentially even better than traditional college. I’m including the textbook publishers here, by the way.

Boundless, a free service offering free alternatives to college textbooks, is frightening the textbook publishers so much that Boundless is being sued by them! The way it works is that students sign up for Boundless, and list the courses that they’re currently enrolled in alongside the assigned textbooks. Boundless then gives the students online, digital textbooks which should work as alternatives. I’ve tested Boundless and it seems to work well, although I haven’t had any real world experience with it. That said, I’d be scared too if I were a heartless textbook publisher executive.

The biggest thing though is university alternatives. Organizations and services which help at least some people skip the costs of attempting a traditional university. Here are some which I’ve been eyeing:

E[nstitute]:
E[nstitute] is a really cool startup which I wish nothing but the best for. The idea is to educate young adults in their desired field by giving them actual work experience through a 2-year “apprenticeship”.

The way it works is aspiring applicants submit an application which includes a series of mini-essays responding to questions (such as What is the failure you most celebrate?), the entrepreneur whom the applicant wants to work under, and general info. 15 of the applicants are selected and flown to New York to live and apprentice there for two years. All living expenses are paid and the selected applicants are forbidden to get another job on the side.

E[nstitute] currently only offers apprenticeships in New York and is focused on tech, but hopes to expand in the future. As it stands, I can’t wait for the next round of apprenticeships to begin — I’ll be applying on day one.

iTunes U:
iTunes U is the “alternative college” service I’m most accustomed to because I use it heavily. iTunes U debuted as a service on the iTunes Store in 2007 and was a catalog of recorded class lectures from universities, downloadable as audio or video. It was a neat idea, but limited because it wasn’t engaging. There was the videos to watch and that was it.

Earlier this year, however, Apple updated iTunes U as an app for iOS devices. At that instant it became immeasurably more useful because the classes felt like classes. Instructors from universities can submit content (lectures, readings, homework assignments, exams) and then organize it all in a syllabus. If an instructor uploads and update, iTunes U app users get it automatically. It’s engaging, it’s fun, it’s like a college class in your hands.

iTunes U courses are completely free, unless the instructor wants you to use a book or app which happen to cost money. I should note that not all iTunes U courses are created equal. It all depends on how awesome the instructors behind the courses are and the content which they choose to include.

Saylor.org:
This is the killer one, for me, and what I’ll spend most time on. Saylor aims to outright be an online 4-year college (non-accredited) for free. This is the real disruptive service, because the courses it offers — again, for free — are real. This isn’t bottom of the barrel stuff, Saylor.org’s courses are designed by credentialed professors. These are online versions of the courses which you’d otherwise pay hundreds of dollars take.

At present, Saylor.org has 13 areas of study, ranging from Art History to Computer Science to Psychology. The only real knock is that there aren’t a wide variety of courses. For example, to meet foreign language requirements in the General Education Program, students can take French I and… French II. No Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, German, etc. Students are stuck with French for the time being.

I’ve been talking about Saylor.org with people close to me, and the single sell that I need to make is why coursework is enough in the “real world”. That a degree isn’t important as long as you you’ve taken all of the courses required for one. I think that whether it is or isn’t depends on the individual. My desired career path is in the areas of writing, tech startups with a social skew, and maybe indie filmmaking. In those areas an education is important, but a degree itself isn’t. However, at present, if you want to be a lawyer you’ll need to change career paths if you don’t have a traditional degree.

The good news on the “traditional degree” front is that Saylor.org is indeed becoming legit in a rather roundabout way. Saylor.org recently partnered with StraighterLine and Excelsior College to get Saylor.org students real, cheap, accredited credits.

The way it works is that some of Saylor.org’s courses are in line with some of StraighterLine’s and/or Excelsior College’s courses. A student can take a qualifying course on Saylor.org, and then pay a small fee to take an exam at either StraighterLine or Excelsior College which shows that the student knows the material and is then awarded transferable credits for the course.

Not all of Saylor.org’s courses work in this scheme yet, but this is still early days and it would be foolish to assume that the number of applicable courses won’t grow and that Saylor.org is done partnering with others, or that they’ll be the only ones on a large scale. This is so obviously the future that it’s terrifying to think of the present, for the reasons I’ve outlined above.

Personally, I’m a Business Administration major and a Computer Science minor at Saylor.org, at least for the near future. I’m going to run through it for an entire term and see how much I like it, and if it’s worth finishing my education with “equivalents” or if I should spend another few thousand dollars for something I might not really need. I’ll definitely keep you updated.

BY THE WAY! I need to make it very very clear that I’m not advising anyone to quit traditional college and take an alternative route. My aim here is to open as many minds as possible to the possibilities. If traditional college is working well for you, great. If it isn’t, you might want to consider things I’ve brought up here. And if you haven’t started a secondary education yet, you now have decisions to make.

Anyway, a lot has been said here, and I hope that it’s been readable. I don’t think that I’ve typed out something this long for anyone, ever (except maybe my Political Science teacher). This is also the reason I couldn’t get a piece out yesterday — this article took some time to write.

Other links to check out:

  • University of the People
  • Udacity
  • Khan Academy
  • An interesting sidenote: Online degrees (accredited) are starting to surpass traditionally-acquired degrees.

    The times, they are a changin’.

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