What does the university offer?

The answer is obvious: courses. But you can get courses anywhere. I’ve written about this before (Dealing Out the Uni), but Jim Groom’s effort to get a new server for his course via Kickstarter has me thinking again.

Earlier this week, in the context of discussing what the traditional university provided that crowdsourced and open options did not with my students, I got an interesting mix of the usual suspects and some answers that I hadn’t heard framed in exactly that way before. (And yes, I am always impressed when students are thoughtful about complex issues.) Here are some of the reasons to go to college despite the increased availability of alternatives:


This is no surprise, of course. One of the reasons to go to an accredited university is for the transcript and the diploma. Long after other structures do learning better (if, indeed, such structures or institutions emerge), the university will maintain a stranglehold on students because of its ability to print educational currency in the form of a transcript. For me, this serves as a good reason to loosen that grip.

When MIT jumps on the badge bandwagon and people start talking about Thrun credits, we might argue that this imperative has already been diminished. But does a MOOC that is not a Stanford course hold the same kind of value? I doubt it. Personal brads do matter: that’s why Howard Rheingold and Edward Tufte, among others, can draw paying students to their seminars. But I wonder how far their letters of completion or endorsement carry.

For the time being, if you want to brand yourself as a graduate, you have to go to a university. And completely regardless of the quality of the instruction at that university, the name must be recognized and valued.


A university tells you what you should be doing, and not just in the classroom. One of my students was open about the fact that if she didn’t have to go to class she wouldn’t: the university in some sense provides a structure of discipline. (Another student disagreed, saying she would get bored without being able to go to class, and was motivated to attend on her own.) This extended beyond the classroom, though, to “life skills.” For many people this is when they are becoming independent, both living on their own and becoming their own thinkers.

Now, I worry that in some places, universities do a poor job of this, extending adolescence well beyond what might be ideal. Many of our students are too scaffolded, and unwilling or unable to put themselves in the driver’s seat of their own learning career. But it was an interesting suggestion: the university provides a needed structure for learning, and frees the student from some of the “meta”: what’s important? when should I study? what are we doing in class today?

Expertise Curation

I thought one of the more interesting answers was that it was hard to find the right people to teach the right things. Yes, there were a lot of self-styled experts out there, but when you don’t know anything about a field, the university provides a faculty that is presumably made up of people who know what they are doing. Perhaps because I’m not as confident in the ways in which universities filter people, this was never one of my top picks for the reason universities exist, but it is an interesting one. For open alternatives to thrive, they need to present a compelling case that they are providing access to experts, and that can be a difficult thing to do.

In some ways, I’m interested in the model of the European Graduate School, which boasts a star-studded faculty. Where else do you find Derrida and John Waters in the same list? Or Peter Greenaway and Donna Haraway? But it is an interesting question: how do you distinguish expertise when you don’t know anything about a field? You don’t. You leave it up to an institution that can act as a filter, and you trust that they hire the cream of the crop.

Guaranteed Skepticism

As an institution, skepticism is built-in. One of the students noted that faculty are willing to expand the conversation by taking positions they may not agree with, by raising questions, by placing skepticism and inquiry in an exalted position. Now, I am sure there are other institutions that do this, but it was heartening to hear this from students: one of the values of the university is a professoriate that is not married to the status quo, that takes nothing for granted, and that encourages a community of inquiry.

Virtuous Community

Because you are–in many cases–sharing the same physical space and bound together in a community, there is some feeling that you are expected to serve other students. Showing up to class unprepared isn’t just a personal failure, but in some way a letting down others in the community. Of course, you can get virtual communities where similar social capital is built, but it is much harder to achieve in the one-off networked class, where dropping the ball (or the course) might have very little effect on other parts of your life. The investment of time in an undergraduate degree means that you are all in the same boat.


I’m a fan of efforts like P2PU. But I also am not quite ready to give up on the university. I don’t think our only choices are the university as it is today or no universities at all. In fact, those two may be exactly the same thing: the university that does not rapidly change to fit the new environment is likely to be buried by the forces of history. As I’ve said before, we are about to go through a sea change in the way universities work that will make the newspaper shakeup seem tame by comparison. The mountain of student loan debt (some of which I continue to carry) constitutes an educational bubble. When universities find themselves having to contract, the outmoded tenure system will make that difficult.

But I also think that this will force some universities to rapidly innovate their way away from failure. It will be a painful process, but part of that process is figuring out what the real value and strengths of a university are. I think relying on the current hold on the credential is a very short-sighted approach.

In the medium term, one of the best solutions is the liberal arts college / research university hybrid. I also suspect that a successful model exists in universities and university towns merging. The walls of the university are coming down, and with them the distinction between student and faculty and worker. I suspect one model of the future university feels a bit more like a small town with a really good library and really good schools, and the four-year program leading to a slip of paper will slowly fade away.

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One Comment

  1. Monica Guy
    Posted 4/3/2012 at 7:15 am | Permalink

    What an interesting analysis of a critical issue for universities, students and employers. Thank you. I have often wondered why I am emptying my bank account for a master’s degree. I am glad it is not just for the piece of paper.

    Perhaps universities will always be necessary for middle-of-the-road students who, like me, need a shepherd and find comfort in a flock. That slip of paper is still necessary, although not sufficient, to get a decent middle-of-the-road job in a middle-of-the-road company. As long as it’s from a university that is middle-of-the-road or above.

    The real stars will excel outside of and despite the university system. Arguably, a better system for highly intelligent, motivated young people would be that of the upper classes in 5th-century Athens. This was a mentoring system, where older men would take promising young individuals under their wing and teach them philosphy, maths, politics, rhetoric, life skills… I wonder if personal mentoring could or should become a bigger and more formal part of business and education.

    For students who struggle at the other end of the scale, university is a waste of both time and money. Start low, learn on the job, acquire specific skills as and when you need them from online training courses… arguably more useful and much less costly than suffering for four wasted years in a bad university.

    This probably puts me a little to the right of Attila the Hun. But I don’t think higher education is right for all. I think it’s right for those of us in the middle of the road.

    It would be even nicer if we were in the middle of the town – a university town, as you suggest. What a great idea. I hope somebody is listening.

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  1. […] to address this is to unbundle the things that the university does. I’ve written about this before on several occasions. A few years ago I gave an Ignite talk at DML on the topic of Garage […]

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