Why college education may be obsolete in near future

This is an article by Sampad Ghosh (Dos of Class 12, 2019) about how the three main purposes that colleges serve – filtration, education, and placement – may become obsolete in the near future. 

College education is thought to be the ticket to a higher level of life. Most people even define their identity based on their colleges — IITian, Stephenians, Xaverians. During class XI and XII, millions of students all over the world slog, worry, and cram ceaselessly to get into the college of their dreams.

But we must pause to think — is it really worth it?

Before you attack me for uttering this blasphemous thought, let me clarify that I am one of you. I am in 11th standard, and have recently given my SAT for admission into US universities. I am also currently studying for my AS and A levels, taking numerous AP (advanced placement) subjects, in addition to preparing for SAT subject tests. All this workload often makes you quite philosophical, and you end up thinking — what’s the meaning of this all?

It is that introspection (and a bit of analysis by my teacher) that led me to the conclusion that the college education is possibly going to be obsolete, in not so distant future. To understand why — let us think about why colleges exist in the first place.

You might think that the reason for their existence is obvious — why, they provide education, you might say. But it goes deeper than that. Colleges actually provide three different services — filtration, education and placement.

By selecting students through their various selection procedures, colleges act as a proxy for quality. You know a typical student of, say Princeton University, will have a SAT score of 1500+, which means he/she is proficient in reading and basic problem solving. You know that IIMs have a group discussion and interview process among their selection criteria in addition to an aptitude test — so you might assume that a typical IIM student may be able to orally communicate well. In addition, by knowing the pecking order (ranking) of the colleges, you broadly understand the pecking order of the students as well.

All that is useful information — because when companies hire, they cannot put all the billions of employable people in the world through a test or interview process. So when they look at your CV, from the name of your college they can make certain assumptions about what sort of capabilities you have. Though it’s stereotyping, and like all stereotyping, it often gives wrong information, but still it helps them to sort out a huge mass of probable hires into a manageable few.

Colleges also provide education — you learn some general and specialized skills, depending on what you major in. This is the role which is the least useful one, because colleges in most part of the world has not really moved in sync with the changing times. Most colleges have curriculum that’s not directly relevant to what’s needed in real life and workplaces. For example, most colleges (even the best ones) do not train people much on ‘soft’ skills. Rather, they prefer ‘hard’ academic disciplines, which have less use for most people.

The third function that (some) colleges perform is placements — helping the students and the potential employers connect with each other. This stems directly from the filtration function — companies know the kind of talent they want to hire, so they can swoop down on a certain set of colleges and finish their hiring process by selecting among a shortlist of eligible candidates.

Now, if you really look at the technological trends over the last couple of years, you will see that all these functions may soon be performed better by other entities.

Let’s take filtration first. Currently the college rank, your IIT-JEE rank, CAT percentile, GRE or SAT score, CGPA — a combination of these variables quantifies your capability. But very soon, better measures may be available. For many jobs, internet is already making it possible for us to rate providers. If you see an Uber driver with a 3.9 rating, you might decide not to ride with him. Before buying products from Amazon, you check the seller’s rating, not his CGPA. In many freelance work platforms, rating matters more than the college degree or SAT score.

Now these ratings or scores are scattered among various places — your academic scores, your business ratings on Google app, your credit score, your seller-rating on Amazon etc. But very soon — all these may be integrated into a single score — indicating your competence and trustworthiness. An episode in Black Mirror, called Nosedive, shows us how such a world would look like. But you do not need to really look at a futuristic TV show for such a world — China is already implementing such a social credit scoring system on a vast scale. If such a comprehensive, precise score is available, who needs poorer substitutes like your college name or SAT scores?

Let’s now talk about the second function colleges provide — education. In most ways, this has already been obsolete in most parts of the world. People learn through on-the-job trainings, through coding boot camps, through online courses and apps. Colleges might teach you Physics, Chemistry or History, but what’s truly needed in the jobs are being taught in the companies themselves, or in apps like Udacity or Duolingo, or in a coding boot camp in California.

The third service colleges provide — placements — may also be obsolete as online job aggregators become more efficient and ubiquitous. In the future, even the concept of permanent jobs may not be there, as we move to an economy where people get paid for pieces of work that they do: the gig economy. Our networked world and vast computational abilities make it possible for projects and people to be instantly connected. In such a world, colleges being the intermediary between people and jobs will be a quaint idea.

All these thoughts make me quite unenthusiastic about all the studying that I need to do — not just to get into colleges, but also inside the colleges!