The Future Is Here


Glenn Reynolds directs us to a Forbes piece by Daniel Jelski arguing that a free college education will be available to all in the near future.I think that future is already here.

There are plenty of online materials available with which an ambitious student can piece together an excellent education. See here. Also here. Plus lots of other places. Right now there’s no good-way to get a college degree for free , unless you happen to be a whiz kid or star athlete who lands a full scholarship somewhere.

But that difficulty is going to go away. For one thing, traditional degrees are going to get a lot of pressure from new competing certification schemes. One or more of these schemes is likely ultimately to provide viable alternatives to four-year degrees. And by viable I mean of equal or greater value to potential employers.

As I noted recently, colleges and universities are really in the business of providing contacts and credentials. We’ve established that the credentials market is about to be blown wide open. A few well-established and highly elite players (think Ivy League) will probably hang in and continue to provide a luxury product called a four-year college education — that is, contacts and credentials served up the old fashioned way.

Other institutions will have to be more innovative. Jelski writes:

  • The residential college experience is valuable even if the general chemistry class is out-sourced. The college can provide accompanying laboratory experiences and/or recitation sections.
  • Students need a peer group. Classmates form the beginning of a professional network that will last a lifetime. Attending classes and studying together is valuable, even if the classes themselves are free. Peer group facilitators will be in demand.
  • Some classes— analytical chemistry comes to mind—require expensive equipment along with a technically trained instructor. This will never be free.
  • College faculty won’t get paid much for teaching, but they can still earn a living as tutors, research mentors, coaches, team-leaders, advisers, counselors. These skills cannot be computerized and students will pay for them.

There won’t be any money in developing and providing courses, so many existing schools will shut down. Others will become  scaled-down learning centers providing some of what Jelski enumerates above. Providing a place for people to connect and the people with whom to connect remains valuable.

This is all part and parcel of what Stephen Gordon describes as the Coffeeshopification of Everything.

There is also the value of the college experience to consider. Many college graduates would say that it is extremely important. It will be interesting to discover how much it is truly worth — that is, how much extra people are willing to pay for it if they can get contacts and credentials by other means.

The college experience itself can’t be made free, not until dorm rooms and beer are free. By the time that happens, we will be living in a very different world.


  1. 2017-03-21 04:08:51

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  3. 2017-03-10 22:59:08

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  4. 2017-01-22 15:52:03

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  5. 2012-02-16 16:05:10

    Kai -- Interesting question. For many, the expat experience has worked as kind of a "parallel track" for accelerating credentials, experience, etc. I worked overseas for a number of years while in telecom and was able to rack up experience I never would have had the chance to gain while in the US. A Chinese businesswoman in Kuala Lumpur told me that the conventional wisdom was, "If you can't make it in London, you go to Hong Kong. If you can't make it in Hong Kong, you go to Singapore. If you can't make it in Singapore, you go to Kuala Lumpur." In that formulation, each destination represents a (supposed) step down in prestige. But another way of looking at it is that someone who is qualified to be a VP may not have the contacts and credentials to land that position in London, but can get it in Singapore. So choosing to work in a "lower-prestige" setting enables that person to add VP to their resume, something that would not have been possible had they stayed in London. Now they have experience that puts them well ahead of others, including some who might have more elite degrees (i.e., contacts and credentials) than they had.

  6. 2012-02-16 14:33:16

    Hi Phil I would even argue that in a world where indvidually motivated professional migration beyond the local / regional and national will be the norm esp to earn experience in talent hotspots across the globe will render the famous contacts and credentials earned from college degrees even more futile. Speaking for myself this stuff is only valid if you remain in your country and are part of the few elite expatriates who are still lucky to be sent around the globe. But is that the norm?

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