The state of education
May 14th, 2012
I was reading an article on the New York times regarding the state of the student debt in America. The total debt has recently climbed past a trillion dollars with 94% of the students under debt. The cost of education has consistently increased as the federal and the state governments have cut funding. The colleges, used to a certain level of luxury, have an easy option in continuing to fund their business by increasing student fee. And this, I think, really is the problem. That education has become more of a business than it ever was. Colleges compete for students by dangling the carrot of superior facilities, both recreational and academic. Recreational include elaborate sporting facilities with the associated infrastructural and maintenance costs and academic include competing to hire 'star' faculty and building impressive auditorium and hi-tech classrooms. The trouble is that neither of these has anything to do with education. Sport facilities add to the name of the college but they hardly contribute to the skills required for getting a job after college. Star faculties are under such an immense pressure to produce research results that they have little time to care for education. And really, good sincere education has nothing to do with how many Nature publications a faculty has.
So as far as undergrad education in America is concerned, finally it's a lot of razzmatazz. Colleges do flashy stuff to entice students who take massive loans to go to these places. Colleges do the first disservice by not communicating, in real terms, the magnitude of the financial undertaking and the second disservice by not bothering to impart the skills which the market demands. Because for better or for worse, it's just that. That education is a business. There is a demand for each and every skill and if the supply overstrips the demand then a lot of people would find themselves out of luck. There was an associated article on Nytimes where experts suggested ways to combat the problem of the burgeoning student debt. I was surprised that nobody suggested regulating access to education or at least making it more answerable to the market realities. I would think that making it more difficult to get different kinds of education (with higher standards for example) when people have other choices is a better way than to tell them down the line that all the years they spent learning something isn't sufficient to get them a living. At that point there isn't only a lack of prospects but also, perhaps, a crushing sense of defeat and injustice. This disconnect between promise and reality is not restricted undergrad education either. I see it, much closer to my own experience, at the grad level too. The number of PhDs that are produced here (in non CS fields let's say) has little to do with the prospects that they have. Much has been said of the intense competition to grab the few faculty positions that are on offer every year. And perfectly smart people who could have contributed creatively to fields commensurate with their level of intelligence grind away competing against those who are either much smarter or those who have ground for yet longer.
If at every educational stage the entrance is tough enough to account for the eventual prospects, it seems that people would in general be happier. Of course it would mean that colleges cannot post consistent fiscal growth percentages and cannot perhaps boast of high rankings in US News but that should not be the concern in the first place. In an ideal world a college should provide a student an education which opens his mind and introduces him to the joys of learning. In a non-ideal world such as ours, it should at the very least provide the students with the skills necessary to make a living better than what he could have made without them. I get reminded of a little essay by George Orwell where he points out one aspect of the ridiculous human condition. The introduction of machines should ideally have led to more leisure for everyone since we did not have to work as hard to produce as much. But we decided, instead, to reduce the workforce. The result was that some of us who had jobs were overworked and the rest of us were unemployed - everyone was miserable. This was obviously due to the fact that those who owned the machines wanted to make as much profit as they could. There isn't anything wrong with that. It's just the way it is and that's more or less what is happening to education. Those who have the means of providing education have chosen to maximize profits and the result is a highly skewed workforce. The workforce is such that those who 'make it', are forever looking over their shoulders. They are never really happy. On the other hand those who haven't made it are unsatisfied because they were promised much more than they received. Alas, this is what we have chosen, in every single aspect of our lives. To be unhappy and unsatisfied for vague notions of grandeur and simplistic received ideas of success.