We've all heard it: "I'm just taking this class to get 'that piece of paper.'" Or, "It will sure be worth it when I get 'that piece of paper.'" As a graduate student, I can attest first hand that much of university life is little more than a 'degree mill.' And that is where DIY U starts off: with a problem. How, the author asks, can we justify our faith in college education when there is little or no evidence that the ever-increasing price is worth the ever-diminishing returns?
First, this charge of college being a "credential mill" is not new with Kamenetz. William James alluded to it in the early 1900's in his essay "The PhD Octopus." More recently, Charles Sykes wrote Profscam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education in frustration over it. Now DIY U. The first half of the book is Kamenetz's explanation of the history, sociology, and economics of our "college for all" hopes and how they've (ironically) led to a very tiered system. What started with the intention of getting more folks to college via Pell Grants, the GI Bill and other government subsidies has led to, at once, a work force that was 'graduate' hungry, and at the same time, rising prices in college costs. What does that spell? A situation where making money demands going to college which fewer and fewer can afford to do. Put differently, a college degree is more or less of value today not because of the education it provides, but the fact that one MUST go through it to stay competitive with others. And so the cycle continues.
But is it financially worth it? Inevitably, there comes a point where prices get high enough to render 'keeping apace' a not-good-enough return. And, says Kamenetz, we are long past that point. She details several studies which show (as Sykes had years ago) that the price of college and the debt it generally leads to is not matched by the economic gains one can expect. As she puts it, the trade-off is only worth it if one is of the means to do it without incurring huge debt, which most aren't. IF debt must be incurred, maybe there are other options.
And there are. This is the point of the book's second half. Community college, tech schools, online universities, etc, etc. All of these are looked on with disdain by the ivory tower academy (I've had many a discussion with professors of precisely this inclination). But, we are past the point where we need to ask: aren't there a whole lot of professions that simply don't require a four year degree? (A strange ally here is Charles Murray, whose book Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality makes this point very elegantly. But I am betting that Kamenetz and Murray are in different political camps.) Kamenetz points out that, in this day and age, it is also becoming easier to learn on one's own using tools like google books, itunes university, youtube/edu, and many, many other sources.
Here, though, is where I find major fault with the author's analyses. While I am very much in favor of 'non-traditonal' avenues of education like online universities, tech schools, etc, Open Source education (of the kind also favored by John Taylor Gatto in Weapons of Mass Instruction: A Schoolteacher's Journey Through the Dark World of Compulsory Schooling) is a bit premature for several reasons. First, we are absolutely ignoring the value of having an external instructor that has more expertise in the field than the learner. Learning is only partly about access to materials; it is also about how those materials are packaged, filtered, etc; services which render instructors much more valuable than 'go it your own way.' Put directly, one need not only get hold of information, but know what kind of order to process it in, have it presented and represented in different ways, and know what information is of use and what information is not. Individuals left to their own devices may not always be the best at doing this, particularly in fields they are not familiar with already.
Secondly, there is a problem our author doesn't address: "that piece of paper" serves a function as a type of endorsement by the university that the holder of it has mastered certain things (bluntly, "jumped through certain hoops.") Were one to engage in Open Source education, how will future employers be able to tell that candidates for, say, a job in engineering have mastered certain engineering tasks? With a degree, there is (at least reasonable) assurance that the candidate has learned the relevant things. With Open Source education, this type of gauging becomes a lot more time consuming, costly, and just plain problematic.
Lastly, I think the author gets a bit hung up on the "information wants to be free" paradigm, so aptly argued against by recent detractor Jaron Lanier (You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto). To apply Lanier's argument, it all comes down to quality control that, in the world of "free," does not necessarily exist. When information is available for free, it generally means that it is not done by someone making money or a career from the product, which may often mean that it is an amateurish work. Yes, I know how snobby this sounds, but it is also true. (And when it is not, such as public domain books, or videos of lectures given by professors on itunes, these are only professional BECAUSE their 'freeness' is a byproduct of them having done it for a profit elsewhere or at another time.) Long and short: the author seems to get hung up on the idea that, thanks to the internet, we can get information much more freely than before. Lanier would simply add to that that this does not in any way guarantee that the quality is as good as before.
So, there we go: three stars. Kamenetz brings up some great points, like the fact that we simply have to be open to new models of higher education because the ones we have aren't necessarily doing the job. Where she fails to convince me is on the idea of Open Source education as a viable model to replace or even supplement the university. Perhaps a full-length argument on this will be a sequel to this otherwise engaging and stimulating read.