College has its skeptics, and the skeptics make good points. Does a four-year university make sense for every student? Probably not. Is the modern on-site college education necessarily the ideal means to deliver training after high school? Maybe not. Vocational training and community colleges deserve a place in this discussion. And we happen to be living through a quiet revolution in higher education.
Here are three quick examples. First, beginning this year, students at MITx can take free online courses offered by MIT and receive a credential for a price far less than tuition if they demonstrate mastery in the subject. Second, the University of Southern California is experimenting with online classrooms that connect students across the country in front of a single professor. Third, there’s Western Governors University, a non-profit, private online university that’s spearheading the movement toward “competency-based degrees” that reward what students can prove they know rather than how many hours or credits they amass.
Some of these experiments will fail, and some will scale. What’s important is that they offer higher ed and retraining that is cheap, creative, and convenient. If we can win the marketing war in neighborhoods blighted by NEETs and deliver a post-high school education to some of those 7 million young people who have disengaged with education and work, we will be spending money to save money.
Take out a globe and give it a spin. I challenge you to land on a region where education gains aren’t translating to productivity and income gains. The highest-income countries have the highest rates of enrollment in secondary school and the smallest share of informal employment that is vulnerable to an economic downturn. There is a cost to not educating young people. The evidence is literally all around us.