... Yet if Wadhwa is right the student debt problem will take care of itself—at least as it relates to the next generation and those that follow. Online courses will proliferate to such a degree that acquiring knowledge will become totally free. There will still be a cost associated with getting a formal degree. But most universities, he says, “will be in the accreditation business.” They will monitor and sanction coursework; teachers will become mentors and guides, not deliver lectures and administer tests. This model has the potential to dramatically cut the cost of an education and virtually eliminate the need to borrow for one, he says.
This isn’t an argument that Thiel was ready to entertain. His focus is on skipping college altogether unless you can get into a top-tier school and are certain to enter a highly paid field. He believes we are experiencing a “psycho-social” bubble in higher education. Everyone believes they have to have a college degree and so they will borrow and pay any amount to get one from any school.
Most families view a college degree as insurance; something they can buy to guarantee that they do not fall through society’s cracks, Thiel says. But what they are really buying is “a dunce hat in disguise” because employers have less respect than ever for a degree that comes from a second-tier university. Such a degree, in Thiel’s view, brands a graduate as mediocre.
Summers, a former president of Harvard, agrees that higher education is in transition. But he thinks Thiel is “badly wrong” about his bubble theory and that Wadhwa is severely underestimating the value of the total university experience. The gap between what college graduates and high school graduates earn is only widening, which speaks to the continuing value of a college degree—no matter what it costs. And, says Summers, “If you think higher education is expensive, try ignorance.”...
... For his part, Wadhwa allows that there will always be students able and willing to pay for a traditional college experience and for them it will be a worthwhile investment. But for the vast majority, from a financial standpoint that kind of education makes no sense and is fast becoming unnecessary. He believes the higher education revolution is coming soon and will happen fast—perhaps fast enough to keep the next generation from finishing school with debts they may never be able to pay.
I think what Wadhwa says in the last paragraph is probably true.