Several months ago, I sat down with my grandmother and looked through some of the old papers she had from her father, my great-grandfather. My great-grandfather did a lot of things — he was a preacher, ran the newspaper and was the lawyer in the small town where they lived. My grandmother was showing me his diplomas and other papers. He had a diploma from college, one from seminary, and his law license.
I noticed that we didn’t have his law degree. When I asked about it, my grandmother told me that he never got one, which I found to be strange, considering he had been a practicing lawyer. My grandmother said that he was enrolled in law school and, after the first semester, a friend dared him to take the bar exam early (most law students take the bar after they’ve completed three years of law school). He took it, passed and dropped out of school to begin practicing law.
He was able to start practicing because many states didn’t used to require lawyers to have a degree in law, as long as they could pass the exam. (Some states still allow this. For example, you don’t have to have a degree to sit for the exam in California, Vermont, Virginia and Washington.)
This got me to thinking about the way our idea of education and skill sets have shifted over the years. Rather than focusing on whether or not someone has the skills for a particular job, we’ve become very focused on getting an expensive piece of paper. This has been to the detriment of society because we end up with lots of people leaving college with, yes, a diploma, but also a substantial amount of debt and a skill set that is of very little use to most employers.
But some universities seem to be aware of the problem — and are even doing something about it. A couple professors from Stanford last year created a class on Artificial Intelligence and decided to do something other universities don’t typically do: In addition to teaching several hundred Stanford undergrads, they made the course available online to everyone else who might want to take it — for free. The non-Stanford students didn’t get college credit from Stanford, so the class didn’t count toward a degree. But for people who were primarily after the knowledge and skill set, and not the degree, that didn’t matter. It turned out that there were a lot of people in that position – 72,000 signed up for the online course.
As more and more people go to college, a degree is becoming less of an indicator of a quality employee. However, how well a student does in a particular class taught by a particular teacher may be a very good indicator of how well a student will do at a particular job. This is especially true if employees are willing to take a lower starting salary. Because debt-free students don’t have all the college debt and are, therefore, willing to take lower starting salaries, employers are willing to spend more on on the job training because they aren’t paying as high of salaries for employees who are still getting experience. What if college classes were free or inexpensive for students, and paid for by employers who are looking for access to the resumes of top students in particular classes? It would create a better, less expensive learning experience for the employee, and it would create a less expensive employee with a more productive skill set for the employer.
Other people have this idea. The professors who taught the Artificial Intelligence course started a company called Udacity to do just that. Coursera is another company that does something similar. In both cases, the classes are free to students and the fine print says something about the fact that if you do well and are looking for a job, they may invite you to submit your resume.
But having employers pay for resumes isn’t the only model for free education. edX is a collaboration from MIT, Harvard and Berkeley that is putting some of classes online and available for free. MIT’s Open Courseware gives you access to most of the course materials from a number of MIT classes. Khan Academy is a non-profit full of videos covering a significant portion of the stuff you’d learn through high school.
Education is going through some significant changes, but one of the biggest shifts is that now, anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can get a quality, college-level education for free — if he’s willing to dig in and study.