The post that follows was written by Will Lucas, a fellow TEDx organizer from Teledo, OH. Will has a passion for the future of education and here shares his point of view that the joy of learning – and what they want to do with their lives – should guide students in their decisions about what to do after high school. You can follow Will’s blog at http://www.will-lucas.com/blog

Will Lucas

Will Lucas

A friend of mine recently had some vacation time to spend. Knowing it was coming up, it didn’t cross my mind to ask how he was getting to his chosen destination. I only cared where he was going. Was he going somewhere with a beach? Maybe he was going to tour DC’s museums, or maybe someplace where they speak the romance languages. The means of transportation was mildly above insignificant.

Until about six or seven years ago, a college degree was your near-guaranteed ticket to the life you always wanted. By collecting abbreviations after your name, the value you could provide and the reward you got in exchange only increased. If you had a bachelors degree and didn’t have a job, you probably didn’t want one. If you had a master’s degree and wasn’t working, you were probably weighing several lucrative offers. If you had a Ph.D. and didn’t make 150k or wasn’t the president of a college, you just couldn’t be trusted. College, at least for the last 100 years or so, was your ticket. It held a promise; Going to school resulted in getting a good job by default. Until it didn’t.

In this world, students get asked by each passing adult if they’re going to college and which school they’ve chosen. I find these inquiries quite odd. Like my friend who was set for a vacation, his mode of transportation really didn’t matter to me. I wanted to live vicariously through his enjoyment of experiencing the resort he’d attend. I wanted him to have a fantastic time and do what he’d greatly looked forward to for quite awhile. He’d worked hard, and I wanted him to enjoy the fruits of his labor. This is why I look sideways when I hear this question asked for the mere fact that it positions the transportation as the destination. College has, at least historically, been the car – or maybe the chauffeur. Going to university was what delivered you to the doorstep of your utopia. It isn’t in and of itself your destiny. However, when we ask this question we imply that college is the end-zone when it’s only supposed to enable our ability to get there. We cause students to believe that a post-secondary degree is the only way. On a trip, I can take a car, a plane, or a train. Might even walk. Getting to my dream has options also. College, while being a major option, is still just that. One option.

There is a major democratization underway in our world that has already shaken our educational system to it’s core. While we’re bracing for a huge shift in education, we’ve yet to realize that it’s already happened. The effects of this shift are just coming to the surface.

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed. ~ William Gibson

College enrollment peaked in the year 2008 just after the financial crisis landed a swift roundhouse kick to the jaw of the world economy. Classrooms of primarily community colleges and technical schools spilled over with anxiety laden 19 and 22 year olds wandering in delirium from whatever the heck happened to their hopes and dreams now laying shattered in a sea of debt crises, broken housing markets, and plummeted job potential. That trend of fresh meat in the lecture hall though has only reversed, and by current estimates, may never again be matched. Between 2000 and 2010, the cost of college increased between 4-9% annually. During this same period, internet penetration in North America increased 153%. There’s no doubt that the internet loves to revolutionize industries and turn traditions on their heads mercilessly. It’s revolutionize alongside, or get steamrolled. Information, inherently wants to be free. Data want’s to be known. Historically, sharing knowledge meant putting a message in a bottle. Today, it means broadcasting to the entire planet with just a few keystrokes, and for free. How do universities respond? There are plenty of theories, and I even have my own. How has the internet responded? It’s responded with Coursera, Khan Academy, iTunesU, OpenCourseWare, Udemy, SkillShare, and Udacity. All domains where anyone resting inside the troposphere can learn any skill from the world’s best teachers, as well as professors from MIT, Harvard, Stanford, or my local colleges teaching roster, and even respected professionals for free or maybe a crisp $20.

Newsweek stopped printing paper last year and found an amazing cover story worthy enough to grace one of it’s final hard copies. The title, ‘Is College A Lousy Investment’. They’re not the only one publishing stories with these provocative headings. Forbes, TIME, and USA Today have all done major stories on this same topic all in the past year. So, is college still worth it? Yes. Just the way we’re doing it won’t work, and obviously hasn’t worked in quite some time. Nobody with a lick of common sense is debating the value of knowledge, only the return on investment of college sheepskin. For the degree to maintain any value moving forward, major changes in how we structure these programs are necessary. 40% of students picking schools purely based on the football team or the super scientific ‘girls-hotness-factor’ ain’t gonna cut it. Neither of which is worth racking up $10k-$25k a year in debt.

The best thing we can do for our young people is inspire a joy of learning. Not institutional learning or segmented learning. But learning and curiosity as a permanent state. I’ll write more on this particular thought later, but we have to stop pursuing educational experiences based on future job prospects. The future belongs to people who can make a way where there traditionally hasn’t been one. Sorry to have to leave that argument short, but I’m running out of space on this post.

College will always be with us, just as it should be. But we’re being forced to rethink what it means and how we do it. It’s important that we’re clear that it is an enabler. A key. An automobile. To position it as the destination is to stunt true development and creativity. Instead of asking with odd suspense if little Billy is going to college, ask him what he plans to do with his life, then ask him how he’s going to get there. To respond, he’ll at least be forced to think — and that’s more than asking what school he’s going to could ever hope to do.