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?

2 thoughts on “Does college education have the same fate as print newspapers?

  1. kathy bollerud says:

    A very provocative posting. I hope you will send it out more widely. How about an Op-Ed or letter to the NYT?
    I totally agree with you about the overwhelming costs of a college education these days…it’s unsustainable. I hate the thought that you will be saddled with huge loans. Clearly, something needs to happen to shift the paradigm here.

    On the other hand, you may find that some of the courses that seem unrelated to your field make profound additions to your life in unanticipated ways. This is the value of a liberal arts education. Perhaps with the escalation in costs, we can’t afford the luxury of this kind of learning? How sad that is…

    When do you get home? I’m so eager to hear more about your experiences. I’m going to see “Half the Sky”, Nick Kristof and Sherri Wu Dunn’s new film on Tuesday. Saw “Girl Rising” last week. Educating and empowering women is certainly moving into the main stream vocabulary.

    I prepared a slide show on Himalayan Education Foundation for Katie. Any chance you (or we) could show it at Northeastern?

  2. Erin manning says:

    Sam! Such an awesome article that I think portrays the thoughts of many college students in America. I think you covered everything from how we are able to access recourses, most of the time at our finger tips, to how we are forced to take classes that we don’t feel necessary for our academic growth. So- after reading this I am wondering what you think the next atep is? Just finish off undergad/grad school in order to get a job of your liking? This was awesome to read. Great insight!!!

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