Image result for entering a black hole“ABANDON ALL HOPE, YE WHO ENTER HERE”

Scientists who study black holes talk about the event horizon, the boundary past which gravity is so strong that (almost) nothing can escape. Here on Earth–or at least in the U.S.–college has created something of a financial black hole, with debt taking the place of gravity. Some students are simply forced to stay away while others enter knowing their school debt may weigh them forever.

At present there are some efforts to make a college education far more affordable. The Bernie Sanders presidential campaign was the most visible example, and there are at least four states where a four-year college education can be nearly tuition-free for in-state residents. At the same time, most projections for the cost of a four-year post-secondary education even 10 years in the future are mind-boggling

  • $135,328 at a state school
  • $305,906 at a private college

Ah, and that’s just the tuition. Room and board, books, and everything else gets added on top of that. So yes, about the same cost as buying a house in much of America.

At the same time, first-year salaries for most college grads have not even come close to matching the increased cost of a college education. On the contrary, new grads are seeing more and more temp jobs and internships–low paying gigs that only lengthen the time it will take to pay off school debt and enter at least some semblance of financial independence. And of course these are the lucky grads who find jobs at all!


Having about 7-8 years before my own son is ready for college, I’ve at least started thinking about what alternatives there might be. One is to study overseas. Norway, for example, is tuition-free even for foreigners! But the approach I’ll give attention to here is one based on the growing library of online courses provided by consortia like edX and Coursera.

Image result for the violent universe schmidt francisI’ll assume readers are already aware that classes on nearly any subject are already available and largely free through these organizations. Readers may also know that the partnering universities include such giants as Harvard, Stanford, and MIT. And finally, readers may know that the professors for these courses often include the very top people in their fields: Nobel laureates, award-winning educators, famous authors, etc. I am taking one of these courses right now, and I can honestly say I’m finding the class better than 90% of what I took when I was in school. These are very, very good. Really.

As such, an internet connection alone is all it takes for a student to access a high quality education in just about any field. However, there are currently too many missing pieces to make this a suitable alternative for most–

  • Social life. Aren’t the friends and connections you make in college even more valuable than the education itself?
  • Structure. How can a list of classes someone says he took match up against a well-defined major, a broad range of “general ed” coursework, and grades?
  • Jobs. Would employers really higher these people?

As these are extremely valid concerns, my goal is to offer at least some preliminary thinking around how each of these gaps can be closed to the point that students who find a traditional education no longer accessible can still enjoy and benefit from an alternative experience to the fullest extent possible.


I went to an undergraduate university with more than 30,000 students, but the number of people I actually spent time with was far smaller–somewhere around two dozen over my four years. As for how I met them, there were largely four ways–

  1. Lived with them (e.g., roommates in undergrad dorm)
  2. Met them in a class
  3. Met them at an activity (e.g., intramural softball)
  4. Friend of someone I met one of the first three ways

As a first stab, then, here is a way to replicate all this at least somewhat.

Imagine it’s 6-12 months before college would normally start. Parents (or even the students themselves) use existing online structures like Meet Up to identify other families meeting these criteria–

  • Student ready to start college around the same time
  • Student planning on similar course of study
  • Student want to live in similar geographic area

Image result for monterey ca

To make things more specific, let’s imagine my son wants to study astronomy and live in Monterey, California. Some level of publicizing or marketing would be needed to find these other families, but let’s assume we find at least three of them.

Through video chats or other means we might hope to establish compatibility with an end goal of 3-4 families pooling their resources to rent a three bedroom house in Monterey that the students can live in. Maybe that already sounds outrageously expensive, but it’s worth remembering these families will each save hundreds of thousands of dollars by taking this approach.

montereyOfficially or unofficially, let’s also assume there is a particular “college district” we create in Monterey (e.g., red box on map) so that other families doing similar can help build up our makeshift college community.

Optimistically we can now picture a neighborhood where perhaps dozens of houses have 3-4 students all around the same year of study. Specific houses might correspond to a particular specialty (e.g., astronomy), but it would be no trouble at all for a philosophy major and a Russian literature major to meet up for coffee or walk to one another’s house. For those opting in, it would be a simple matter to create a directory or help students locate other students in the neighborhood or even nearby cities.

Meanwhile, within a particular house, we might imagine students initially taking some of the same courses as each other, which could include “attending” lectures together, doing homework together, and forming study groups. While there might literally be over a hundred “Intro to Astronomy” offerings, it would be no trouble for the students to coordinate their choices. Roommates and friends often do this at “real” colleges also.

Image result for whale watching montereyNow let’s take a look at extracurricular activities. It would be very easy through Meet Ups to put together all kinds of events for these students–whale watching, kayaking, hiking, Taco Tuesdays, dancing, religious life, potlucks, field trips, etc.  These events would bring together students across different disciplines and provide entry points for new friendships and social connections. Clubs could also be established.

Acknowledging the plan here isn’t fully fleshed out, let’s at least agree it’s something and move on to the next gap.


I don’t want to regard lack of structure as entirely a bad thing, but we’ll nonetheless focus on its downsides–

  • How do we know the students are really doing anything vs just clicking through videos or not even that?
  • How do we know the courses the students take will add up to something useful?
  • Can we ensure students are still getting a well-rounded education vs taking fifty Astro courses?

Let’s look at these one by one–

There are a few ways to ensure students are really doing something–or more importantly, really learning something. The course providers themselves build in certificates for students who do the assignments and take the tests. Yes, a student motivated enough to cheat can likely find a way, but the same is true at the university today.

As for ensuring a meaningful collection of coursework, akin to a college major, this is an easy problem to solve. If such doesn’t exist already, it would be an easy thing for a knowledgeable person (e.g., a current university professor in the subject) to establish a minimal collection of coursework that would qualify as a major. Additionally, we might someday hope that specific employers (e.g., NASA for aerospace engineering, Microsoft for software development) might create and publicize their own requirements. (This last part sounds far off today, but I think it almost becomes a necessity as more and more students find college unaffordable.)

Finally, it would again be easy to assemble a set of requirements or guidelines for coursework outside the major. Most colleges and universities already publicize their “general ed” requirements, so there is nothing top secret here. (My own hunch is that one of the ways colleges will attempt to remain affordable is to suspend general ed requirements in favor of supporting two- or three-year bachelor’s programs. As such, even a failure to include this in an alternative education (sadly) may not create any competitive disadvantage.


Image result for help wantedAt the end of the day, most employers want someone who can do the job more than they need the “piece of paper.” Even today, I believe many employers would look favorably on a “grad” who could furnish a transcript of 20+ highly relevant edX courses over someone whose four-year degree program allowed for far fewer. Even beyond an edX or Coursera transcript, there are GRE Subject Tests in six different disciplines, and it’s easy to imagine this number increasing as the need arises. And whether through a test or other means, employers need to have ways–even today–of determining whether new grads can really do the work. There are very few fields or industries where a four-year diploma is an automatic indicator of competence or qualifications.

I’ll admit that most job postings today in the professional sector include among the requirements an actual degree. However, it would be a small enough change to make this “four-year college degree or equivalent.” I would argue that it will even become an economic necessity to do so as college becomes less and less affordable to the general public. The same is probably true of grad schools as well.


I tend to think something like this is the future of higher education. There are some small question marks as to the whats and the hows and a much larger question mark as to the when. Perhaps this is the kind of thing that nobody does till everyone is doing it. (I know that sounds paradoxical, but it pretty well describes Donald Trump’s support in the Republican primaries.) I’m sure it’s easy to find things about the model that aren’t nearly as good as “real” school. That said, it’s hundreds of thousands of dollars cheaper, and may well check off most of the boxes. I would even argue there are parts to it that are better than a four-year school.

Perhaps the biggest test of all this is whether I’d be willing to try it out on my own kid. If I had to commit today, I’d probably say no, mainly out of a fear that there wouldn’t be enough other takers to build the campus community and sway the job market. On the other hand, as we have at least six years before any decisions need to be made, I am very open to the fact that my answer may well be different six years from now.

What about you? If you have kids several years away from college, what do you like about the model? What don’t you like? What ideas would you have to make it better?