Education’s New "Long Tail"

The United States needs fewer mediocre Universities, and more investment in community colleges and trade schools.

When I went to University, it was, by far, the most efficient way to become literate across a broad range of arts and sciences.  The alternatives of attending a trade school or learning on the job offered some early rewards, but the typical University graduate immediately earned more, and the gap widened as time went on.

Without a broad education, one lacked the perspective and knowledge to converse with other “well-educated” people.  It was more difficult to synthesize the visible social trends in order to anticipate the future and make smart career or business moves.  Since employers knew this, they required a University degree for most management track jobs.  A University degree was highly respected by society, and the social network provided by University provided a resource for new opportunities.   It has always been possible to become a tycoon or a celebrity without a University degree, or to become an intellectual through individual study, but the best chances of long-term career success came with a University diploma.

That is not so true anymore.  Cross-disciplinary knowledge is still very important, but it is more important to be selective.  A course of study that includes Biology, Math, Chemistry and Computer Science is essential to a career in biotechnology, but time spent learning history, literature, and psychology may just slow you down.  It might be better to get your career going as a biotech worker, and then pursue other fields of knowledge as you feel the need for them.  It used to be that educating yourself after your time at University was a difficult task involving many trips to the library (which generally didn’t have all the best books for your quest), or finding and getting the time of experts.  Now a daily educational supplement is at your fingertips. Interested in a job that requires a basic literacy in European history?  A few days on the Internet will do the trick.  Your boyfriend is interested in cosmology?  Start with   Found yourself in a media company and need to get more literate?  MIT offers more than 40 online courses, free.   Starting a business and need to learn accounting and finance?  Check out the free online courses from the MIT Sloan School of Management, one of the best business schools in the world.

ipad-newspaperIt is no longer necessary to try to cram all your scholarly learning into four years at University.  The Internet creates a “long-tail” of learning opportunity.  Whether general or specific, popular or obscure, knowledge is available to you when you need it, throughout your life.  In the new model of lifetime learning, the front-loaded hours of study at University and graduate school is replaced with a faster integration into employment and frequent bursts of study throughout life.

With lifetime or long-term employment by one company now more the exception than the rule, employers are more focused on whether you have the right skills for the job you are hired for, rather than whether you are properly educated for a “management track.”  As for the value of the social network provided by attending University?  That’s still true of the elite Universities, but not so much true of the lesser institutions. LinkedIn, and Facebook, used well, provide a good substitute.

Critics will counter that statistics show a steady increase in income with more years of education, as shown in this recent chart from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

Statistics, however, can mislead to false conclusions.  The chart above reflects average incomes.  Since income generally grows with age and seniority, the results are biased towards the over-40 workers, who certainly did limit their career if they didn’t go to University and on to graduate school. Second, University remains the most efficient and sometimes only way to pursue many high-income careers.  You can’t be a MD without medical school, and you can’t get into a good medical school without a degree from a good University.  The same is true for Law.

The same is not so true for computer geeks.  It isn’t just Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg (all college drop-outs).  It includes thousands of young technical geeks who earn a two year Associates degree from their local community college, then get a good job with advancement potential based upon demonstrations of their skills.  Down the line, of course, they may need to learn some business management skills, but they won’t be uncomfortable spending time with their computer to learn what they need from the best instructors in the world.

So, with the exceptions of institutionally controlled professions like medicine and law, what you study and your level of motivation probably matter more than what what degree you get.

Consider a new high-school graduate with an interest in physical infrastructure.   A couple of years of community college, leveraging online free courses on urban planning and robotics from MIT or other top institutions (for credit towards her associates degree), combined with an unpaid internship at a small company working on pipeline repair robots, and that young woman is going to have her choice of high-paying jobs.

Perhaps her high-school girlfriend wants to be a K-12 teacher.  She could take the traditional path of a 4-year degree at some mediocre University, because her parents can’t afford the better ones and she doesn’t want to saddle herself with a mountain of debt.  Alternatively, she could go to community college, emphasizing childhood education and child psychology.  She can follow that with Internet study and some facilitation workshops,  while interning at an alternative K-12 school that uses the “lectures at home, group-work at school” approach promoted by the Khan Academy.   Her personality and facilitation skills will matter more than most of what she would have learned from a four-year degree, and she will likely earn more, sooner, than she would as a teacher in our stagnant traditional school system.  If she is ambitious, she might soon be an expert on alternative education methods, and help start a new school, or become a world-traveling consultant.  Some people may dismiss her because she “doesn’t even have a University degree,”  but the forward-thinkers most likely to put her recommendations to use will look at her experience and publications, not her diplomas.

Attending University right after high school prolongs childhood, keeping us free from responsibility while we continue what we were doing in high school:  learning in the classes we like, listening to boring teachers in required courses we don’t care about, and partying like it’s 1999.   But it isn’t 1999, and more focus and less partying will serve us better.  Those who attend community college are more likely to be working to support themselves, or at least much more conscious of the opportunity cost of not working.  They are more likely to be a bit older, with some crappy work experience behind them that gives them motivation to accomplish more.  They are more likely to be focused:  choosing classes that will be most useful in a specific career that they have in mind.  They are less likely to major in Medieval Music and more likely to major in business.  They are less likely to go on to graduate school to write a thesis on economic conditions of 18th Century Russia, and more likely to go directly to work or start a business.  It is not surprising that recent reports suggest that many community college grads earn more than the average for graduates from 4-year programs.  After having paid about a tenth of the cost of attending a University.

Our public policy should reflect this new reality.  President Obama’s policy goal of making college education more affordable to more Americans is well-intended, but misses the urgent need for a structural overhaul of our post high-school education system.  States should maintain a few premier Universities, and fund them well.  But second-rate Universities should probably be gradually pared down in academic scope, emphasizing high-demand technical degrees and trade certifications.  Excess space on these campuses could be leased to businesses who wish to work in partnership with the colleges, gaining labor from and giving experience to the students.   Meanwhile, the taxpayer money freed up from downsizing the second-rate universities could be reallocated to improving the state’s network of community colleges, and to funding alternative charter schools that will explore and define the future of K-12 education.




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