Can libraries & online learning replace a traditional 4-year education?

February is Library Lovers Month (really, it is!), and it got me thinking. Twenty years ago, having a four-year degree went a long way to assuring you a job once you graduated; these days, college seems to be ‘the new high school’, and many students are feeling pressured into Masters and even Doctorates to keep their competitive edge in the post-graduate job market. With the cost of higher education skyrocketing, students entering college today can expect to spend many tens—sometimes hundreds—of thousands of dollars on an education they may not even be fully committed to. If that sounds like a strange statement (“not fully committed to”), take a nice long mental stroll through some of the more popular college degrees and then ask yourself what the heck a person actually does with that shiny new piece of paper once they get it: Business, Engineering, Political Science, Liberal Arts, etc.

Take Engineering, for example. I went to Texas A&M for Aerospace Engineering. I didn’t go because I had a burning desire to be an aerospace engineer—hell, I didn’t even know what an Aero really did—but my dad sure thought I’d be great at it, I excelled at math and science, and I had these visions of “building the structure of the International Space Station”. So off to engineering college I went, and then promptly slept, daydreamed, and failed my way through two years of expensive classes. I was miserable. I hated what I was studying, but thought “hey, it’s probably just me, let’s try a different engineering major!” So I switched to Civil Engineering—where I could concentrate on designing those structures rather than pesky propulsion and thermodynamics systems—and was only marginally happier. See, in a discipline like engineering, you don’t really know what you’re getting into until you’re there, in the thick of your senior design project. And, oh, by the way, you’re gonna need a Masters if you want to be hired by any decent design firm in that field. Deflated, irritated, defeated. That’s how I felt. I was now thousands and thousands of dollars in debt for an education I didn’t even want and had no clue what to do with. I graduated college, messed around in a few engineering jobs for a couple years, then finally quit to become a Mary Kay sales rep (out of sheer desperation for something more, something me). I constantly struggled with self-esteem and spiraling bouts of depression; I mean, obviously, I was a failure, right? Couldn’t even get through engineering school and disappointed my whole family with my continuing unemployment and lack of direction. It’s been twelve years since I graduated with that B.S. in Civil Engineering and, while I am still paying back that borrowed money, I am not using that degree at all.

Is this the example we want to set for the next generation?

Do we really want to tell them that a piece of paper is more important than their own interests and ambitions, more important than DISCOVERING what they truly want? Do they even know what their ‘personal interests’ actually are? Honestly, who really does at 17? Perhaps if I knew then what I know about myself now, I’d have gone into art or business or literature, but I didn’t; I was impressionable and insecure and I let society steer me onto what was the “right path” even though society doesn’t have my bills or emotional baggage from the whole experience.

Mike Rowe, the tenacious and notoriously good-natured host of Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs television show, recently posted about how education doesn’t necessarily equate to job performance ability. He cited his own audition for QVC and how he filled his eight minutes on camera selling a simple pencil, then rebutted Howard Dean’s criticism of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker for not having a college degree…

Here’s what I didn’t understand 25 years ago. QVC had a serious recruiting problem. Qualified candidates were applying in droves, but failing miserably on the air. Polished salespeople with proven track records were awkward on TV. Professional actors with extensive credits couldn’t be themselves on camera. And seasoned hosts who understood live television had no experience hawking products. So eventually, QVC hit the reset button. They stopped looking for “qualified” people, and started looking for anyone who could talk about a pencil for eight minutes.

QVC had confused qualifications with competency.
Perhaps America has done something similar?

Look at how we hire help – it’s no so different than how we elect leaders. We search for work ethic on resumes. We look for intelligence in test scores. We search for character in references. And of course, we look at a four-year diploma as though it might actually tell us something about common-sense and leadership.

Obviously, we need a bit more from our elected officials than the instincts of a home shopping host, but the business of determining what those “qualifications” are is completely up to us. We get to decide what matters most. We get to decide if a college degree or military service is somehow determinative. We get to decide if Howard Dean is correct.

Online learning is beginning to explode in popularity. With free—or very affordable—resources like Coursera and Khan Academy out there, anyone can learn practically anything. Brain science? No problem. Divergence theorem calculus? Got you covered. Quantum mechanics? Pfft, easy peasy… okay, maybe not easy peasy, but definitely free! Webucator founder Nat Dunn recently wrote about just this subject and speculated that maybe students could get just as much out of spending four years in a public library as paying through the nose for a college degree. And I found that idea very intriguing. Our tax dollars pay to upkeep those libraries, but—even amongst the book-loving set, especially with today’s prevalence of online shopping and e-readers—most of us rarely set foot in one. So I took a stroll through my own local public library, and here’s what I found…

Education: library learning vs. traditional universities

  1. My small community library had quality books on many of the popular fields of study at four-year universities: law, medicine & veterinary health, art & humanities, neuroscience, chemistry, money & investing, math & statistics
  2. I also found resources on topics more traditionally learned either through a technical or trade school or through home study: electrical theory & maintenance, food & wine, patents & inventions
  3. It had a list of electronically available items, for those who prefer e-readers to physical tomes.
  4. There was a healthy selection of autobiographical and fiction novels, for readers looking to gain alternative perspectives.
  5. It even provided informational booklets on the courses offered by nearby universities.

In some (larger) libraries, maybe you could gain technical knowledge comparable to an undergraduate degree from a University… or at least a two-year college. More importantly, when you spend some dedicated time in a library pursuing what calls to you, you’ll start to find out who you are and what you may enjoy doing with the rest of your life. Some proponents of a four-year degree may insist that not all of the education is classroom or textbook knowledge, that some very important elements in the full experience help shape a student psychologically and emotionally through social interactions and mentoring. And I agree! In fact, Texas A&M prides itself on offering students a comprehensive “other” education through social activities. But this doesn’t mean you can’t find mentors, whether in the flesh or in spirit. Consider Hilary Rodham Clinton’s autobiography Hard Choices or Chris Kyle’s An American Sniper. Whether or not you agree philosophically and politically with those personalities, you can’t deny that their messages bring home some very important aspects of life. That’s mentoring, folks; it’s also history. For interpersonal skills, online communities like meetup.com make it easy for people to find kindred souls and participate in real-world activities. There are hundreds of thousands (probably millions, by now!) of podcasts covering just about every topic under the sun, and many of the show hosts are experts in their fields.

Now that we’ve established that it is indeed possible to give yourself at least a rudimentary education through FREE local and online resources, let’s talk about the most important fact in this whole discussion…

What’s right for Howard Dean isn’t necessarily what’s right for Mike Rowe. What’s best for me isn’t necessarily what’s best for a graduating high school senior. It doesn’t have to be, nor should it be, either/or. Today, we can choose to educate ourselves on our own timelines and in our preferred mediums, whatever combination of books, mentoring, social, classroom, and university experiences and sequences work best for our own personal needs. It is our responsibility to ourselves and to the future of our society to make smart choices and find our own paths to education.

Coursera founder Daphne Koller believes in giving away education, making top quality material free for everyone. Everywhere. Entrepreneurs all over the world are investing in e-learning start-ups just like Coursera, but why stop there? Your public library is (probably) just around the corner and it won’t cost you much (if anything) to join and start reading and learning. Take your kids with you and make learning a family affair. Put the fun back in books! Secure your, and your children’s, educations by investing in yourself in a way that energizes you. Don’t be shy about taking advantage of the free resources you have right here at your fingertips and just around the corner in your neighborhood.

Start investing in you. And be smart about it!

  • davincikittie

    I’d love to hear what everyone thinks about this!