Some Observations On The State Of The University

In April 2018, The Atlantic released an article talking about the future of college. They argued in it that the future of college resembles something of the future of retail, with more work being done online and an eventual decline in the traditional “brick-and-mortar” structures:

Online learning has come a long way since the turn of the millennium. It certainly hasn’t displaced traditional colleges, as its biggest proponents said it had the potential to, but it has gained widespread popularity: The number of students in the U.S. enrolled in at least one online course rose from 1.6 million in 2002 to more than 6 million in 2016.

As online learning extends its reach, though, it is starting to run into a major obstacle: There are undeniable advantages, as traditional colleges have long known, to learning in a shared physical space. Recognizing this, some online programs are gradually incorporating elements of the old-school, brick-and-mortar model—just as online retailers such as Bonobos and Warby Parker use relatively small physical outlets to spark sales on their websites and increase customer loyalty. Perhaps the future of higher education sits somewhere between the physical and the digital.

A recent move by the online-degree provider 2U exemplifies this hybrid strategy. The company partnered with WeWork, the co-working firm, to let 2U students enrolled in its programs at universities, such as Georgetown and USC, to use space at any WeWork location to take tests or meet with study groups. “Many of our students have young families,” said Chip Paucek, the CEO and co-founder of 2U. “They can’t pick up and move to a campus, yet often need the facilities of one.”

Students in many of 2U’s degree programs already meet up with each other during yearly class meetings held on campuses, Paucek said, but the WeWork partnership allows for more-consistent in-person gatherings and the potential for new programs, such as architecture, for which physical studio space is required. Paucek is, for someone who runs an online-degree company, remarkably open about the importance of physical space: “The history of online education is a vast underestimation of the power of people,” he told me.

Richard DeMillo, the executive director at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Center for 21st Century Universities (where I am a visiting scholar paid to research the future of higher education), thinks that some traditional campuses will gradually move toward a similar middle ground. He wouldn’t be surprised if universities start fusing the best of the online experience with the best of the physical experience, possibly like 2U is trying to do with WeWork. “Think of it as the storefront for the university,” DeMillo said.

DeMillo says he’s already seen the physical-digital dichotomy start to dissolve. He remembers when, a few years ago, Georgia Tech launched an online master’s degree in computer science, and students in the program started showing up at university-affiliated events in their hometowns. Some of the online students even traveled to Atlanta for commencement—the first time many of them had ever set foot on the campus. “They wanted to see in person the professors they got to know over video,” DeMillo said. “Students don’t have a problem blending the two experiences, either for efficiency or because they are digital natives.”

Of course, blending learning experiences in this way is not always a smooth, or even feasible, process for many traditional colleges. Most of them are not designed to allow students to take just one course at a time or to toggle between online and face-to-face classes; taking a class on most campuses requires enrolling as a student in a full-fledged degree or certificate program and then choosing to participate exclusively in either online or in-person classes. “While universities have all these resources for lifelong learning, we also have all the constraints in how the model currently works,” said Carissa Carter, the director of teaching experiments at Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design.

In 2014, the d.school, as the Stanford institute is known, sponsored a project in which undergraduates were tasked with rethinking what a college education will look like in 2025. One of the results was a design for a lifelong, on-and-off education experience. It was called the “open loop university” and would admit students for six years of study that could be undertaken at any time. Under this system, students could “loop out” after two years to go work and then “loop in” a few years later, with four years left on the clock if they wanted to try something else. The idea is that students who returned after looping out could use the time that remained to retrain for new careers later in life, whether in their 30s or 50s.

That particular vision is not likely to be realized anytime soon, but some colleges are thinking along similar lines. Several universities, including MIT, Penn, and Boston University, recently started a type of online degree called a “MicroMasters” as a way for students to begin work on a graduate degree without committing to a years-long program. Students who do well and pass a set of proctored exams earn a MicroMasters, equal to somewhere between a quarter and a half of of a typical master’s degree. Top performers can then apply for slots in a full master’s program from the universities, to be worked toward in-person; if accepted, they would be only a semester or two away from finishing a full master’s degree. When MIT launched its MicroMasters, in 2015, it expected 200,000 students would enroll across all programs; within the first nine months, more than 1.3 million people signed up.

Such physical-digital experimentation can even alter the experiences of students already enrolled at physical college campuses. For example, 75 percent of the 56,000 undergraduates at the University of Central Florida, in Orlando, took at least one online class at the school last year, even as they were enrolled in face-to-face courses. (Another 10 percent took a hybrid course, a mix between online and face-to-face.) Nearly a third of the university’s classes take place online, which officials say has eliminated the need to build at least five additional classroom buildings.

For now, though, most short-term or blended-learning programs exist not at universities but in the professional world, with companies running ongoing programs to train their current workers. And, here too, the division between online and face-to-face learning is thinning.

Take Xerox, for example. In the 1970s, the company opened a sprawling campus in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., to train its workforce. Some 1,800 employees came through the facility in any given week for classes. But Xerox sold the campus in 2000, when it began to move its professional-development courses online. It now mixes face-to-face training with more than 10,000 short online videos and other on-demand reference materials. John Leutner, the longtime head of global learning at Xerox who retired in 2016, told me that this arrangement saves the company money and also improves retention because workers can learn on their own time and at their own pace.

Companies also regularly turn to outside help instead of training workers themselves. Employer-financed programs account for about half of the business of General Assembly, a firm that holds classes for coding and other skills. The company can customize its curriculum for companies’ most immediate needs—“unlike in the past when companies sent someone off to a university for graduate school,” said Charlie Schilling, the general manager of the enterprise business at General Assembly. He added, “Someone can take an assessment on a Friday, sit through a part-time data-science class in a week or two weeks depending on their flexibility, and immediately return to their job and do things in new ways.” It is, in a sense, a sped-up version of the open-loop university dreamt up by those Stanford designers.

As the economy continues to ask more and more of workers, it is unlikely that most campuses will be able to afford to expand their physical facilities to keep up with demand. At the same time, online degrees haven’t been able to gain the market share, or in some cases the legitimacy, that their proponents expected. Perhaps a blending of the physical and the digital is the way forward for both. (source, source)

Note the highlighted part at the end of the story- my emphasis.

There are 24 hours in a day. While it is said that “eight hours” are dedicated to “work,” the more accurate statement is to say that it is usually between nine to twelve hours per day when one factors into account lunchtime (unpaid and up to an hour each day), and commute times (up to 90 minutes each way on average, already assuming delays), plus the fact that one does not “leave” exactly at the end of the work day nor does one arrive to work the minute one starts (as both are ways to ensure that one is fired quickly). This is a ritual that goes for five days a week, and sometimes more days or longer hours. When the “end” of the week arrives, many people are so exhausted they have little to nothing left within themselves except to vegetate in front of the television mindlessly until the next work week begins. Continue this process for years over a large number of people, and the result is a population of unhealthy, sad, medicated people waiting for death rather that attempting to live life in any meaningful way.

Far from making life better, and while there have been many benefits, modern mass industry/heavy industry in combination with various laws has used the increased productivity to leverage greater profits and extract more from workers to the point that many people are enslaved through legal channels and complex agreements the same way that many people, white and black, were enslaved in the 19th century and before except through chains. What was once done in chattels is now done at work by contract and in private by financial debt.

While visiting a friend, I drove through a major university campus near to him. Astonished at the observations I saw, I also visited two more major universities withing a reasonable driving distance in order to cross-evaluate what I saw, and both times I was proven correct.

What one will notice if one goes to any major university campus is that, doing a numeric tally, there are more women than men absolutely. In all cases, multiple times I counted female-to-male rations of about 55-45 to 65-35. This is increasingly being reflected in the corporate workplace, where in some major Fortune 500 companies the workforce is now 70% female or more.

For years as some people have noted, the introduction of women into the workforce allowed for the doubling of the labor pool and simultaneously, the “halving” of salaries. For all of the talk about “increasing jobs”, while jobs available can increase, they generally grow in relation to the size and needs of a population, as they are a response to work needed to be done. If there is no work, there are no jobs. As such, unless fundamental changes happen in a system, the labor market itself does not significantly change in size.

These 100 jobs mentioned above exist within a society of 160 people, split evenly between men and women. All of the men work and all of the women stay at home. This means that 80 men are employed in 80 jobs, and there are 20 jobs available that still need to be filled. This is the case of America during the middle part of the 20th century, where jobs were plentiful and laborers were in demand. While employers need positions filled, there is always work to be done and wages remain constant.

While women have always been in the labor force, the introduction of women in large numbers into the labor force effectively doubled the market of potential workers but without increasing the actual amount of work available. In this example, there still are 100 jobs but now 80 men + 80 women, or 160 people in competition for work. The employers now have all their jobs full and the people are fighting for a position to find work. Because of the abundance of workers, some people out of desperation will offer to do the same task for less simply so they can earn a living. This naturally drives down the price of wages, split usually between the genders, effectively making all persons in the labor force continue to perform the same tasks as before but at half of the pay rate that they received previously. Because there are more people working, businesses have also raised their prices as there are more people asking for the same goods and services. Likewise, there is also the problem of the remaining 60 people who do not have a job and, with the lowered wages and increased cost of living now may need to consider finding work in order to survive.

If this situation was not difficult enough, laws were passed which subsidized women’s hiring over those of men, and credentials over experience. This has not eliminated men from the work force, but has valued the favoring of women over men for tax breaks, giving a woman and advantage over a man in an even hiring competition by the fact of her gender and not ability to perform the task required. As one 2017 study from Movemeon, which analyses the job market noted:

Not only did women view 20% fewer jobs than men, they also appeared less likely to apply after viewing a job: on average women would view 25% more jobs before making an application than a man.

Having made these applications, the conversion to interview was 12% higher for women: in short, their applications were better.

Even more pronounced is the difference in success after an interview. Women are an astounding 24% more likely to be offered a job after having been interviewed.

The end result is that after having made an application, women are 36% more likely to land the job than men. In essence, men are competing more but winning less. (source)

According to the Department of Labor, women make up 51.7%, or just over half of all employed positions in the USA. In the case of our example, this means that about 48 men and 52 women are employed, meaning that while 28 women do not have jobs, 32 men were put out of work in order to make room for the 52 women to be employed. Numerically speaking, this adds up to 20% of all the society.

This likewise does not take into account other factors, such as the dangerous introduction of A.I. which is said to over the next two decades take up to 47% of all jobs, or the fact that because women are favored in the job market, it tends to delay marriage because the women will generally place their careers over the desire to have a family, thus reducing not only family size, but increasing the likelihood of infidelity and later divorce.

Something else that one knows is the rising tuition prices for college. I will not name the schools I looked at, but these are “cheap” by comparison, so that if a student takes out all of his tuition in loans- this is assuming he does not live in a dorm and indulge in the “college experience,” -the student will come out with about $45K in debt. Many other schools are now an average of $34K per year. When one takes interest into consideration, which varies from 4 to 7 percent, a person will end up dedicating much of their income to paying off what is truly an onerous burden for the rest of his life. This does not even include house debt, car debts, credit card debts, or other forms of debt.

So what did I see when I was at both of these universities that fascinated me?

It was a mass of humanity, more women than men, walking to classes and looking at their phones, visiting the veritable “college cities” of restaurants, vape shops, and other forms of entertainment that are profiting off of the business of college indebtedness. One cannot totally blame the businesses, as they are there because of the college presence, and more blame goes to the colleges because they know they are indebting the majority of these people for the rest of their lives for what is greatly their benefit, thus perpetuating the same cycle of slavery that came to defined the 20th century and those before.

Make no mistake, I am not against college either. What I am for is, as the Atlantic article notes, a restructuring of college so that just as 3-D printing and the darknet are reshaping manufacturing and the Internet, so is college being reshaped by the Internet.

Let us be honest, 2 + 2 = 4 whether one is at Yale or at the local community college. Facts do not change, and while access to resources can be important, that usually becomes so at a later point, such as when going into a specific field for a particular kind of research. Otherwise, the only difference is the price point between paying a lot of money versus a little money.

As far as the argument of “connections” made in college is concerned, the Internet and social media as well as social meetups and other forms of direct communication have greatly circumvented much of the traditional paths, not eliminating them but providing potential means to the same ends that did not previously exist.

Then there is the issue of home education/”homeschooling,” for given the advent of modern tools, means of communication, and not so much the increase in resources but the potential for redistribution of the same resources are people in remote areas of the world or a country able to avail themselves of many, if not all, of the same resources uses by those in major urban areas.

But with all of these technological changes that are made, the same general rules for success still apply. Children are most successful when driven by their parents (not having their parents do their work for them, as there is a difference and the two are sometimes conflated), and the earlier one finishes school and moves on to higher education the more successful one is. One only needs to look at how in centuries past, it was not uncommon for those who went to school to be finished with the equivalent of “high school” by their early teens before moving onto either university or a trade-type program. Debt is always bad (see Proverbs 22:7), and one must always make the most of their time because there is only so much time in a day. Morality remains constant, and objective truth never changes regardless of the social desires of any given time.

Man cannot save the world. That is the job of Christ. However, what a man can do, if he is wise, is to leverage the existing systems to his benefit, making use of the redistribution that exists today for his benefit that is ultimately aimed for God and neighbor.

Each person has to think through this for his own context, but I can give a few examples.

For example, if one has children in public school, as one considered the variety of homeschool programs that exist, or if not that, even a quasi-homeschool program that in conjunction with public school can get your child graduated early and either into a trade school or university?

If one is looking at college, what about the abundance of legitimate, respectable, and good online universities around the world that provide excellent education at a bargain price?

What about the many “free universities” and book repositories that exist online now, making university courses available without any tuition cost at all?

What about looking into small-scale hobbyist businesses that can be set up for a low price and can be parlayed at a later point into a small business, such as involving small-scale manufacturing, the production of consumable foods (just look at the number of “ethnic restaurants” in any city), or even learning how to program and maintain the machines that will run artificial intelligence robots?

I am not saying that any of these things will be “easy” or without pain. Far from it, all good changes in life are born from some form of pain as how many people have observed. That said, the current trajectory of much of society, especially the school –> college –> job –> married –> house –> 2 kids –> leave job –> die pattern is as dehumanizing as it is unstable. Education, work, family and marriage, responsibility, and life changes are normal, but in the USA, they have been mechanized into an Prussianesque industrial machine that strips the humanity from the citizens and reduces them to consumerist organs of a financial-industrial oligarchy that has eugenic ideas and ultimately wants to become “god” and exterminate the very people who buy their product.

And yet, how it looks in real time is rather benign, covering up the deadly philosophy out of which it came.

Life is tough, and there are hard decisions. But there are still choices that one can make, and what does one have to lose by attempting to make changes to one’s life by raising oneself out of of the enforced indebtedness that is modern life?

Perhaps this is the reason why it is criticized, because it is a true pursuit of freedom that benefits all, great and small, and poses at threat to those who would deny the humanity of their fellow man in the hopes of benefits for themselves.

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