Thursday, July 8, 2010

The State of Education

Sooner or later, I fear that there's another bubble that's going to burst, and it's the private education system in the US.  I don't claim to know how it's going to burst, or (more importantly) when it's going to burst, but the cost of a private, higher-level education is simply becoming untenable.

Cost to attend one academic year at Harvard (including tuition, room, board, and fees) for 2010:

The median household income (for 2008, the latest data I could find):

Tuition costs have been rising at about twice the rate of inflation since 1995.

The above image is borrowed from the site, a great repository of information like this.  Wikipedia also has a discussion about the inflation of college tuition, although it's a little harder to digest.

I could rant for hours about how the system of financial aid is fundamentally flawed (it's treating the symptom, not the problem, and it's just using taxpayer dollars to extend the joyride), but maybe that's better saved for another post.  This post is actually meant to have a positive note to it.

So, in that light, this guy is my hero.  Sal Khan has endeavored to place over 1,400 "lectures" on a website, all in 10 minute chunks that can be downloaded via YouTube.  The topics over everything from biology (Adenosine Triphosphate; The Kidney and Nephron) to Chemistry (Gibbs Free Energy; Galvanic Cells) to Finance (Collateralized Debt Obligations; Treasuries).  I've watched a few on LaPlace Transforms and on Probability and the binomial distribution, and they Don't Suck.  The writing is a bit like chicken scratch, he sounds like my friend Jamie, and I'm pretty sure I would go at LaPlace transforms a bit differently, but the message is there, clear, unambiguous, and readily digestible by the unwashed masses.  For free.  And if you didn't follow something, it's easy to rewind and go back.  This is appealing, and I know I need to brush up on my statistics.

The advantage that universities provide today is that you get a certificate of completion, otherwise known as a diploma.  If an interviewee is in front of me who has just graduated from Penn State University with a degree in aerospace engineering with a 3.4 GPA, I have a pretty good clue of his abilities, his work ethic, and his ability to learn.  I have no such insight into someone who has "completed 700 courses of the Khan Academy."

But I would love to be like Sal: take a few subjects, spend an hour or two brushing up on them from various (unintelligible) textbooks, think on it for a bit, and then assemble a few 10 minute lectures.  To me, that sounds like a tremendous amount of fun, and would be rewarding .... although, there wouldn't be much personal interaction.  I'm pretty sure I could do better than most (but not all) of my college professors.  But to do 1,400 of them?  Wow; that's an impressive feat.

So, with the increase in popularity of sites like Khan's, Bureau 42's lectures on quantum physics, The Teaching Company, and MIT's Open Courseware, perhaps there's a new niche: the college graduate exam.  This could well be the internet education of the future: you do you own learning and studying, and then take an industry-accepted competency exam.  Then, as an employer, I would be able to see your entire transcript and your overall GPA.  It's not perfect, but compared to a $200,000 Harvard education, it's pretty tempting.