The Credentialess College

In an essay for The New Republic, “The Higher Education Monopoly is Crumbling As We Speak,” Kevin Carey writes that “the single greatest asset held by traditional colleges and universities is their exclusive franchise for the production and sale of higher education credentials.” He continues: “Just as people are ultimately interested in buying holes, not drills, higher education consumers aren’t buying courses or degree programs. They’re buying credentials.”

To some extent — hell, to a large extent — Carey is correct. The vast majority of college and university students go to school for purposes related to job training and career preparation. According to this 2009 article from the NY Times, only about 8% of college students pursue a degree in the humanities, and it’s been that way for decades. The rest of the students pursue degrees or credentials in business, technology, and the sciences. You also have to factor in the changing demographics of college students, where adult learners are quickly becoming the majority and where “slightly over half of today’s students are seeking a ‘subbacalaureate’ credential (i.e. a certificate, credential, or associate’s degree).”

Carey’s argument is that institutions of higher learning face a threat in the rise of a model “where the education itself costs students nothing—the availability of free open educational resources is constantly growing—and students only pay small fees to cover the cost of assessing their learning.”

All that might be true, but as a humanities kind of guy, I’m less interested in an education whose result is a professional-level certificate and more interested in an education whose process creates open-minded individuals capable of finding and creating meaning in their lives and in the lives of their fellows.

Six or seven years ago, when I was an undergrad at an environmental liberal arts college in Vermont, I designed a three-credit, independent study in the concept of memes (not “internet memes,” but “memes“). Now, the college I went to charged roughly $2,500 for a three-credit course. According to Kevin Carey, as a higher education consumer, I was hoping to receive some sort of professional benefit from designing that course. But as you can probably tell, unless I was to go into sociology or some branch of evolutionary studies, I wasn’t about to get a job or learn a valuable skill from pursuing the concept of memes.

So why I did design it and pay for it? Because it was a concept that interested me and I wanted to learn more about it. The studying of the subject was the value of the subject. I basically paid $2,500 — or really, when you factor in my Bachelor’s degree and my Master’s of Fine Arts degree, over a hundred thousand dollars — for the right to stop being a productive member of society and instead indulge myself with intellectual pursuits.

Unfortunately, we all seem to have an obligation to produce something for society. Ideally, for people like me, that means producing some sort of end result from each intellectual pursuit, a kind of travelogue of my mind’s journey, one that shows people either the value of following a similar path or wards them from chasing one of their similar thoughts into a dead-end. In reality, it means writing, publishing, and teaching.

But here’s the point. Kevin Carey’s article reports on the way the Internet is giving rise to a business model where the education is free, but the assessment will cost you. For people like me, however, where the assessment and credentials are not what interests us, the Internet provides an unlimited (and free!) education (and intellectual forum). The trick, I suppose, is to figure out how to build a business model on the idea.

I suppose I’m talking about a creating a kind of retreat…or monastery…where people pay for the privilege to be separated from the mundane drudgery of having to shelter and feed themselves while they explore the wonders of the human condition. They don’t receive a certificate from this experience, nor are they required to produce anything tangible as a result. What they’re paying for, in short, is spiritual and intellectual indulgence.

It’s a business model that would only appeal to those who can afford it, of course. But that’s essentially the business model of the entire vacation and tourism industries, and they seem to be doing okay.

Now I just need the land…