Higher Education Bubble

Posted on Aug 08, 2010

G. H. Reynolds at the Washington Examiner writes:

… a college degree is an expensive way to get an entry-level credential. New approaches to credentialing, approaches that inform employers more reliably, while costing less than a college degree, are likely to become increasingly appealing over the coming decade.

As I’ve been recently looking for work, I couldn’t help but be struck by the number of positions, even mundane ones, that claim to accept no less than a Computer Science degree. Many of the people interviewing for these positions erect great barriers to keep the masses out: tests, multi-stage interview processes — filters to keep candidates out of their doors. Competition must be absolutely fierce.

When competition is this fierce it can only mean that the market is flooded with talent. While I had my head down for the past five years doing real work an entire generation was toiling away in the ivory tower. Now they are loose and sucking up all the available jobs no matter how over-qualified they are. That’s why they invest in higher-education even if they cannot afford it. If they didn’t, they might not have any job at all.

Unfortunately, I think Mr. Reynolds is right. Tuition is becoming (and has been for some time in my opinion) prohibitively expensive. The returns are not coming around either. These graduates are faced with a landscape of scarce job opportunities and diminishing salaries. It’s a wonder that they still show up every fall in droves, dying to get into classrooms. Even if they get accepted and graduate they’ll spend another eight, ten, or more years in crushing debt unless they’re really smart and lucky and get snapped up by a bank or win the startup lottery.

Meanwhile, the auto-didacts and hackers who’ve been doing this work in the field for years are losing credibility to these people with each graduating class hitting the market. The flood of bushy-eyed graduates looking for any job they can get their hands on to pay their tuition debts have left many businesses lapping in the luxury of having an abundance of highly-skilled cheap labour. It makes us highly skilled, expensive labour-types less appealing. Seems experience doesn’t count for much in this kind of market.

Call me what you will, but I think something needs to be done. These highly-skilled (or not, who knows) graduates invested in an education that promised them a career. Myself and others like me worked our behinds off to climb to where we are on our own (bypassing the debt, stress, and anxiety of higher education). Yet neither party is entirely happy in this market place. I think new authorities need to arise to the occassion, as Mr. Reynolds suggests, and offer a new form of credential system. Universities should stop being clearing houses for careers and develop life-long researchers and scholars (or at least stop kidding everyone into thinking that to build the next twitter, amazon, or ebay that you’ll need a degree).

The urgent problem is to win the trust of industry and provide an alternative way to certify the abilities of job seekers regardless of their background.

Or maybe there is no problem and we need to bypass any system all-together and organize ourselves instead of trusting institutions to certify our knowledge, understanding, and experience.