As the price of college skyrockets, a new book looks to “edupunk” alternatives.
College diploma, photo by Our Lady of Disgrace

While the increasing costs of a college degree have not seen an increasing return, the penalties for not going to college are steeper than ever.

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Do you know a college student? Chances are, that person is going to graduate with an alarming amount of debt: Students in the class of 2008 graduated owing an average of $23,200 in student loans. It’s now a given that you “need” a college degree to achieve middle-class status in the United States. But we also know that the middle class isn’t what it used to be. So, is a college education worth the money?

The question plagues many Common Security Club members, whether we are students, graduates, parents, or grandparents. How can we save (or borrow) enough to pay for top level schooling, when private college tuition—plus room and board—now runs about $45,000 year? Parents wonder whether they should compromise their retirement savings; grandparents are shocked at the cost; teens have little to compare it to, and may be quite unprepared to make use of such an expensive investment.

In her new book, DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, Anya Kamenetz ambitiously dismantles much of our cultural mythology around higher education:

Looking at the history of American colleges and universities convinces me that many aspects of the current so-called crisis in higher education are actually just characteristics of the institution. It has always been socially exclusionary. It has always been of highly variable quality educationally. It has always had a tendency to expand. It may be because we keep asking more of education at all levels that its failures appear so tremendous.

Kamenetz analysis is both rational and radical. She questions whether college is “nothing more than an elaborate and expensive mechanism for employers to identify the people who … had all the social advantages in the first place, and those people then get the higher paying jobs.”

Her point is ultimately practical, which is what makes this book such a good resource for folks questioning and contemplating higher education. While stating flatly that, since the 1970s, there has been no increase in return to match the increasing cost of a college education, Kamenetz also makes it clear that the penalty of not going to college has increased in that time. This penalty is a steep decline in income for those with no college degree. The decision, then, of getting a degree, or not, can’t be taken lightly.

Kamenetz also covers the student loan industry that saddles young people with debt, critiques both the popular and real histories of higher education in this country, and examines the difficulties faced by community colleges.

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But perhaps the most useful section of the book is the last one, in which Kamenetz examines a large variety of alternatives to traditional 4-year colleges. Some of them come out of digital age technology that makes information highly accessible, while others are more hands-on. There are opportunities for self-education through Internet-accessible course syllabi (MIT, for example, makes all of its syllabi available online). There are also free colleges, where students work to run the campus in exchange for their education. She describes “edupunk” as “an evolution from expensive institutions to expansive networks” of teachers and learners—largely connected through the Internet. For those who learn best with their hands, or at least in person, there are more directly experiential colleges built on a foundation of internships and apprenticeships.

Kamenetz concludes with a 30-page resource guide of all sorts of educational possibilities—from the highly virtual to the totally experiential. It made thrilling reading for me, as the parent of a couple of “non-traditional” learners (and no budget for Harvard, anyhow). I would recommend it highly to stoke discussion of the future of higher education … and particularly to all the high-school seniors out there.


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