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In our opinion: Rethinking higher ed as something more than a path to a higher pay check

Published: Tuesday, Dec. 11 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

University of California Berkeley student Dior Sweeney poses for a photograph on the campus in Berkeley, Calif., Friday, July 1, 2011. California college students could see bigger tuition bills but fewer courses and services after lawmakers passed a state budget that slashes spending on higher education.

Jeff Chiu, Associated Press

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You may not be familiar with the concept of "hacking" an education, unless you are young, bright and a risk-taking contrarian. But the idea is important to understand because of what it reveals about the challenges faced by higher education in the United States.

Education "hackers," spurred on by web sites such as UnCollege.org, drop out of traditional colleges and find ways to learn on their own while putting their budding entrepreneurial skills to work. Unlike dropouts in the 1960s, these students aren't interested in drugs and protest marches. They are, however, interested in making money, and they feel traditional colleges and universities aren't helping them much.

Contrary to how it sounds, UnCollege offers programs that help young people live abroad, build portfolios and personal brands, and obtain internships.

A recent report in the New York Times titled "Saying no to college" showed how such people congregate in places like Silicon Valley, where high-tech corporations are increasingly recruiting undergraduates in midstream, rather than waiting for them to obtain degrees.

We don't endorse this approach. A university education provides greater depth than just the knowledge of how to earn money. At its best, it teaches critical thinking skills and opens minds to literature, history and a host of disciplines that expand the mind and ultimately benefit society at-large.

High-profile success stories like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are exceptions. Most well-paying jobs still require degrees.

But we do believe these bright and energetic dropouts are trying to tell the higher education establishment something. When the cost of a university degree has risen to the point that the amount of debt per student has doubled since 1997, and when there are few measurable increases in the quality of education that would correlate to those gains, changes need to be made.

A recent report in The Economist outlined the problems. Private and public colleges have taken less interest in increasing expenditures on instruction than on administration and support services, even though the number of students has risen since 1990, according to a study from Pennsylvania State University.

For all that spending, people aren't becoming more educated. Despite the rise in tuition, a federal survey found that the level of literacy among college graduates fell between 1992 and 2003, one-third of today's students take no course requiring more than 40 pages of reading, and obtaining an A is so easy it now makes up 43 percent of all grades given at four-year institutions.

In the midst of this, something known as "massive open online courses" or MOOCs, are gaining ground, offering college courses online for free, taught by well-known professors. Private companies are sprouting up to meet demand, aggregating courses and lectures for a small fee.

Despite all this, higher education still has the most to offer, but it must begin competing more heavily in this world, harnessing its own entrepreneurs to refine and streamline education. It may need to partner with some of these organizations to save costs and deliver instruction more efficiently. Higher education must find a way to educate students of average means without saddling them with mountains of debt that takes years to retire.

As the Times piece noted, schools are increasing revenues on the backs of massive student loans, promising that a student will learn what is necessary to retire that debt. That makes it harder for them to argue a university degree is not just about earning money, even if that is the case.

The good news is so many young people are thirsty to learn. The challenge is to teach them effectively in a rapidly changing learning environment.

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