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Lecturers debate future of higher ed

A Janus Forum lecture discussed the affordability and value of a college degree

The place of higher education in a rapidly changing world was the focus of a contentious debate between two speakers at a Janus Lecture Series event last night in MacMillan 117.

Richard Vedder, professor of economics at Ohio University and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, began the debate — called “The Education Bubble: Is College Worth It?” ­— with an economic argument criticizing what he called the United States’ over-investment in higher education. The widespread notion that a college degree is necessary to succeed has led many young people to enroll in schools, only to drop out and become burdened with debt, Vedder said.

“Should all go to college? Absolutely no,” said Vedder. “Should some go to college? Absolutely yes.”

Vedder listed 10 facts to support his argument, such as the over $1 trillion owed in student debt, declining literacy rates among college graduates and the high numbers of college graduates with jobs not requiring a degree.

Vedder argued that studies showing a high rate of return on investments in college education do not take into account the financial plight of the many aspiring graduates who begin but do not finish college. The earning potential of a degree has lured more and more high school graduates into higher education, Vedder said, but these students are only “dimly aware of the risks of not graduating.”

With almost 50 percent of students at some schools failing to earn a degree within six years, “colleges are complicit in leading millions of young Americans to a path not of financial salvation, but one of despair,” Vedder said.

Higher education “served the American dream” when a small part of the population pursued college degrees — now only degrees from highly selective schools are deemed valuable, Vedder said. Rather than leveling the playing field, higher education serves to “reinforce inequality” in a kind of “aristocracy,” he added.

Vedder’s remarks were followed by a presentation from Vivek Wadhwa, vice president of innovation and research at Singularity University, which offers short education programs for post-grads and midcareer executives. Wadhwa emphasized a rapidly changing and globalizing world in his argument for the increasing importance of education.

Wadhwa said he disagrees with many analysts who are “moaning about the cost of education.”

“I think, ‘What are these people smoking?’” he said. Instead of looking at the high cost of educating more students in a traditional system, he added, people should be looking at the shifting future of technology and education, in which “knowledge has become free.”

Wadhwa cited massive open online courses as an example of the evolving face of education but described them as “primitive.” He compared them to the early phases of television — early television producers didn’t have a clear vision of what the new medium could do, so they simply put radio stars in front of a camera, Wadhwa explained. MOOCs, he said, don’t take advantage of how rapid advances in digital technology can make education a personal and immersive experience.

Exponential growth in technology has made it impossible to predict what the job market will look like in 10 years, Wadhwa said. Vedder cited the high number of janitors and taxi drivers who have college degrees as an argument against investment in education, but Wadhwa countered, “Forget about educated taxi drivers.” Self-driving cars could soon completely eliminate the need for taxi drivers, he said. With the advent of devices that can do what humans do, call centers in India and manufacturing companies in China will be “toast” in the next decade, Wadhwa claimed.

“Imagine having pizzas delivered to you by a drone,” Wadhwa said. That technology is not a futuristic dream, he said, but in fact already exists. “By the time many of you will have finished your PhDs, the world will have changed,” Wadhwa said. Three-dimensional printing technology will revolutionize the way goods are developed, and machines like IBM’s Watson could develop diagnostic capabilities surpassing that of physicians, he added. “People don’t believe things are changing this fast.”

An educated workforce that is prepared for the changes ahead is essential for the nation’s success, Wadhwa said.

Though they disagreed on the value and role of education, both Vedder and Wadhwa said there will be an enduring place for elite schools in an evolving world. Vedder said he foresees a continuing role for top institutions in a world of new and different kinds of education. Rankings of these schools rarely change significantly, and not one institution has gone under in the manner of private companies, such as Kodak, whose products have become outdated, Vedder said.

Wadhwa added that elite universities are only a small part of the broader picture of education’s future. He said he envisions “a new type of institution” emerging that emphasizes interactions and discussions better than the current model of MOOCs.

While Wadhwa said he doesn’t think elite schools will ever evolve into such a model, he also said they won’t lose their influence. He compared changes in education to the advent of online retail.

“I can’t tell you the last time I’ve been to a shopping mall, but they still exist,” Wadhwa said. “That’s what’s going to happen to education.”



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