145 of 158 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
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.
48 of 53 people found the following review helpful
- Published on Amazon.com
Vine Customer Review of Free Product
Everyone says they want a college education but fewer people in the US have a real chance of getting one. And why do young people want that college degree? Because they've been repeatedly told they need it in order to get a good-paying job. They've been fed the numbers that show that average earnings are highest for those with with advanced degrees, followed by four-year degrees, some college, and lower pay for only high school or no high school diploma. In the United States, there is a profound belief, seemingly upheld by these numbers, that a college degree is the ticket to the American Dream.
But the reality, told so eloquently in this small book by Anya Kamenetz, is that many find themselves priced out of going to college and those who go find themselves drowning in debt and more than half who start never get a degree. Because college has become so expensive, there is concern among students about the monetary value of their degree. Will it really pay off in terms of their salary over their working years? Is it worth taking out all those student loans? Should parents mortgage their house (oops, with the mortgage crisis, probably not an option), spend their retirement savings, or take out commercial loans to send their kids to college?
Is that even the right way to think about higher education? Is it just all about money? Whatever happened to the intrinsic value of an education? As it turns out, there have never been more options for learning, if we stop thinking about learning as only happening in classrooms in ivy-covered buildings on rolling green campuses. In this book, Kamenetz takes us on a tour of the smorgasbord of learning opportunities. Many of these are rooted in technology that can bring together teacher and student over any distance, can offer instant information on any subject. The internet has truly been the disruptive technology of our age. Many colleges now offer internet classes, but some newer approaches have used the technology to basically change the way information is delivered. What the author calls "the sage on the stage" - the lecture system - is being replaced with online learning that adapts to each person's learning style.
A new batch of "for profit" colleges (think University of Phoenix or Kaplan University) are experimenting with more approaches that attract and keep students. The traditional university gets its prestige, not from graduating students, but from its research activities and its exclusivity (the number of students it turns down). It is not focused on imparting students with knowledge, but on building up its "brand" and its image through its distinguished professors, who may spend little time with actual students. The for-profits have turned that around and concentrate on students. I found it a bit disheartening to hear that the profit motive is driving innovation in education. Shouldn't we as a society, through public education, be providing the means for every person to develop their skills and make a contribution? Have our institutions of higher learning let us down in a massive way?
I found the information in this book energizing, provocative and truly transforming in its potential. Since I confess to having been born just after World War II ended, I know I am not the generation that the author wants to reach with this book. But I have long thought the use of a college degree to screen out job applicants has been a poor policy on the part of employers. When I worked for a Fortune 500 company, part of my job was preparing presentations for managers. I remember one presentation that touted the fact that they planned to hire "Ivy-League MBAs" without any reference to what these hires would be doing; it was all about the prestige. Another time I saw this company lose an amazingly talented young man who was working as a contractor, but who they would not hire because he lacked a college degree. Shouldn't hiring decisions be made on the basis of who can best do the job, not on whether or not they have an MBA from Yale?
Speaking of my generation, older people are also attracted to these new options for learning. The January-Feruary issue of the AARP Bulletin had an article called "Free E-Learning." It listed a bunch of websites that offer learning in many subjects, and the article began with the news that all of MIT's academic courses are available online. I visited all the sites listed and added many to my bookmarks. Since I am retired from full-time work, I do not care about gaining an academic credential, but I do care about the chance to learn and these are wonderful resources!
For people like my 25-year old daughter, who does not have a college degree, what Kamenetz tells us about new ways to showcase your abilities and basically compete with the "degree as credential" is relevant. My daughter's talents are artistic and she has taken lots of classes, but her friends in the creative arts tell her that a college degree is generally not worth the cost, and that creating/doing something that shows ability is a more compelling path to opportunities. Kamenetz gives us examples of people who have used the educational resources out there to learn what they needed to know, then just started using it to make a lving doing what they do best and want to do. Perhaps as time goes on and more people take this route, companies will begin to look at people in terms of their skills and talent, not just their college credentials.
There have always been people who educate themselves for what it is they want to do with their lives. Others seize an opportunity outside college that may not present itself again. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard because he knew the time was right for small personal computers to take over some of what had been only possible with mainframes. Instead of taking classes, he dropped out and spent his time writing a version of the BASIC language for the Altair computer, which enabled it to do real work, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Sure overall, college graduates earn more, but maybe it's time to think about a diversity of ways people can find their future, and about ways our institutions of higher learning can adapt to new realities of economics and technology... and better serve the American people.
I really loved this book, with its vision of a new and improved educational environment, in which self-education flourishes! Thank you, Anya Kamenetz for writing it.