Does college education have the same fate as print newspapers?

Newspapers are ironically becoming yesterday’s news. As technology continues to evolve and change how we live our lives, media delivery has shifted from paperboys to 140 character blurbs broadcasted instantly over the Internet and plastered on a screen the size of your hand. Many long-time newspapers have been forced to shut down, and almost all have had to make budget cuts in the form of major layoffs.

The threat of technology has been too overpowering, and the choice to pay for news from traditional outlets or get it for free from up-and-coming entrepreneurial sources has been a no-brainer for many. The question is not when print newspapers will become extinct, it’s whether it will happen in 5, 10 or 15 years. The free, convenient alternatives available on the Internet just make so much more sense for Americans. It is clear that print newspapers are in the middle of a dastardly collapse into rubble, but are there other sectors that technology affect in similar ways?

If you were an alien – or just a foreigner – looking down from space, observing the lives of young Americans you would probably think that they were one of the most wasteful species of animals on the planet. Probably in terms of garbage, but even more so with their money. I am a student at Northeastern University in Boston, MA, a vibrant school with a lot of students who know what they want in life, and work vigorously to achieve it. Northeastern surely isn’t what its counterparts across the Charles River are, but we like to think we are pretty bright. Sixty-three percent of incoming students last year were in the top 10% of their graduating classes, we have students working/studying in countries all over the world, and over 83% of our graduates get a full time job within 9 months of graduating.

However, it seems that either we are all ridiculously wealthy, or absurdly stupid in one area. We each are charged roughly US$20,000 for one semester’s worth of classes (four to be precise). That is not including hundreds of dollars in annual student fees the university charges, the costs of living in the heart of Boston, or any of our textbooks. I paid over US$9000 for two courses called Environmental Geology, and Black Popular Culture: Music, Movies, and More. Both were enlightening courses and are certainly useful to many students. However, I am studying to work in the field of international economic development, and was forced to take a level 1 science class (Environmental Geology) and an arts class (Black Popular Culture), in order to earn my degree in International Affairs. US$9000 later, after an A and a B+ my knowledge of volcanic rocks and 90s hip-hop has not helped me at all in the pursuit of my dreams. Rather my parents, sisters and I are working hard to make enough money to cover the cost of our menacing student loans.

Northeastern has offered me a lot of opportunities that I doubt I would have had elsewhere. Through its Dialogue of Civilizations program I was able to travel and study in Kenya, Chile, and South Africa and through its well-known co-op program I was able to work for the International Center for Journalists in Washington, DC and the South African Red Cross Society in Cape Town, South Africa. Still in my third year, I have plenty of experiences that I am looking forward to at Northeastern.

With that said however, I sometimes feel like a fool when I go online and take free courses from Harvard, MIT, and Cal Berkeley. Or when I go to the first lecture of the semester and my 25-year-old economics teacher reads straight out of the textbook that is available on Amazon to everyone in the world. I feel like an idiot when I am able to listen to podcasts of some of the smartest people in my field giving talks at DC think-tanks or when I ride my bike over to Harvard and sit in on a lecture from Paul Farmer, as if I was paying the same amount the other 200 students in the lecture hall are.

So if I have all of this knowledge available directly at my fingertips (in almost all cases), why am I willing to take out tens of thousands of dollars in loans to finance my college courses? Well, for one it’s the norm in the job market. Most of the jobs I aspire to have require a graduate degree let alone the undergraduate degree I am currently pursuing. And the average student can’t let all of the debt-free kids be the only ones who get a chance at those jobs. I’ll work as hard as I can to beat them out, and pay off my loans.

And secondly, not taking out the loans seems more risky than putting myself in debt. If I want to work to make a real difference in the world, I can do two things: 1. I could avoid the debt and become an entrepreneur, or 2. I could take out the loans, put a great college education on my resume and give myself a good chance at getting a job that I want. The second feels more secure, possibly because it’s the norm. Although I’ve thought fleetingly about becoming a college dropout entrepreneur, I am not confident enough to allow myself to take the risk.

That all leads to a question I’ve had on my mind for the past few weeks. What will endure? Will employers’ demand for a traditional college diploma continue to out-muscle the ability that we have to get a world-class education simply by moving to a city, buying a computer, and utilizing libraries? And are the incentives tempting enough for us to educate ourselves, or do we need to feel the weight of tuition payments, and student loan debt in order to do our best? In Europe, many students pay only a few hundred US dollars for a semester at their university, simultaneously receiving a stipend every month for living expenses. Here in South Africa, the Dutch and German students I’m with rely on the government to send them their spending money every month. They get this simply because they are in school. On the other hand, the US students I’m with are paying exorbitant fees to their universities in order to come to South Africa to work and study. One would think that this inequality in access to education between the US and Western Europe will cause the US to fall behind in technology, innovation, health and overall economic production in the next few decades.

However, if young people were rewarded for taking initiative to learn on their own, then those who can’t afford to go to universities in the US would be able to take advantage of the countless resources that the Internet, public libraries, and other non-profit institutions have to offer, and they would still be able to have a job. So how can we change the incentives so that employers reward students who learn on their own?  In the long-run today’s university education will become what print newspapers have become – those who wish to buy an education can, but those who want to save their money for other things can easily access the same quality information for free using technology. What do you all think?

Does college education have the same fate as print newspapers?

Red Cross employment program moving veerrrry slowly

The reason why I came back to Cape Town for this 4 month trip was to create an opportunity for poor women to earn an income. The Red Cross asked myself and 8 other Northeastern students to come up with an innovative way to generate income for their long-time volunteers and HIV+ patients in July and the plan for a sewing business within the Red Cross was developed. We asked the patients and the volunteers what they wanted and they repeatedly said that they needed income, but wanted to continue being a part of the Red Cross. The patients wanted to continue receiving Health and Care services and the volunteers did not want to give up their unpaid work with the Red Cross. So, since many of the volunteers and patients had sewing experience, the Red Cross had 10 sewing machines laying around, and the Disaster Relief wing of the Red Cross bought thousands of blankets every year to hand out to disaster victims, moving the production of these blankets in house seemed like a promising idea.

Since I arrived here a little less than 2 months ago, we have converted an old storage room into a sewing venue, had 10 hand sewing machines converted to electric machines, purchased all the small things (Needles, cotton thread, pins, thimbles, etc.) needed for sewing and stitching the blankets and have been trying to work out the economics of buying, producing, and selling blankets in a sustainable way. This last part has proven to be very difficult because Disaster Relief, the business’ main customer is only willing to spend 40 South African Rand, a little less than US$4.50, per blanket. Along with pricing issues, Disaster Relief is telling Seipati (my boss) and I that polar fleece blankets will not be up to standard, even though they are much nicer than the regenerated mixed polyester fibers blankets that are being given out now. Recipients of these blankets have complained of rashes and skin irritation and have claimed that they are ugly, uncomfortable, and lack durability. The fleece blankets that we could possibly produce would cost a few Rand more than Disaster Relief’s R40 budget but previous recipients of similar blankets reacted positively and favored the fleece to the other material, even though it may provide slightly less warmth.

Before we buy large amounts of material, I am working on a presentation for the Director of Western Cape Programs and the Director of the Western Cape Disaster Relief Programs to explain the benefit of the employment program to the volunteers, patients, and disaster victims and to discuss potential blanket material with them.

The offices here are running very inefficiently and it seems as though they are understaffed. I have tried for almost two weeks to get the finance department to pay the African Sewing Company, but the single person who has the ability to do this hasn’t yet and our machines cannot be picked up until she does. I have also tried to sit down with her to talk over how our external funding is going to be organized into separate accounts for over two weeks now but have not been able to set up a time to meet. I have asked her in person, emailed, slipped notes under her door, and even told others to tell her to email me but she has been too busy. We have 20,000 Rand of funding from the Social Enterprise Institute at Northeastern that has not been accessed yet because of this inefficiency.

Dealing with these issues has been a problem but they are signs of hope. Yesterday I was able to speak to the head of disaster relief in person and she told me that she is looking forward to my proposal and thinks that the budget for the blankets may be able to flex a little bit if the program shows promise. She also mentioned spreading the program throughout South Africa which is exciting.

I was able to show the sewing room to a few of the ladies who will make up the first twenty sewers and they loved it! They were clapping their hands and dancing and making sewing machine sounds pretending to roll out the new blankets and then the unmistakable leader of the volunteers, Depha, said to me ‘Good money… good wages” and looked up at me like she was telling her son he better be home by midnight. I explained that we are going to have to start slow but that if we work hard and can get some more support then everyone can hopefully start earning a substantial income. She smiled, hugged me and waddled away to stir her big pot of samp that she was cooking for Khayelitsha fire victims.

Red Cross employment program moving veerrrry slowly