Don’t Get Me Started on Higher Education

This month's Don't Get Me Started column (Lowering Higher Education), by the ever-irascible David Platt, looks at the broken system that is higher education in the United States. As Platt notes in his column, the inflation-adjusted price of a college education has quadrupled since 1982, creating what he calls "an academic bubble" similar to the recent stock market and real estate bubbles.

In fact, Platt is in no mood to mince words about what he sees as a woefully inefficient system that charges too much and does things entirely the wrong way. The first draft of Platt's January column, before it had passed through the sausage grinder here at MSDN Magazine World Headquarters, kicked off like this:

The Internet is set to hammer the higher education industry in the same way it hammered the newspaper industry. I hope that my industry will respond to this challenge with creativity and imagination that will make the world a better place. I expect to find the landscape radically different when my daughters start college, 9 years from now.

As the father of three children, including a high school freshman, I really, really hope Platt is right. So, apparently, do a lot of MSDN Magazine readers, who have responded to Platt's column with opinions and perspectives of their own. As Platt told me, the structural issues in college education have been "festering for a long time." Now those issues have reached a breaking point.

But just as the music and movie industries both fought tooth and nail against each technological advance, from VCRs to MP3 players, Platt expects universities to struggle for the status quo.

"Well, you know that the academic establishment is going to fight like hell to keep this new model from succeeding, in order to protect their jobs," Platt says, before drawing a parallel. "The academic establishment has lost its control over the delivery channel, as has the newspaper industry. And like the newspaper industry, they cry out that their control is necessary for the benefit of humankind. Too late. Adapt to the new reality or die."

So what might a sea change in university education mean for software engineering? Platt hopes we see a long overdue focus on practical programming skills.

"The academic establishment considers anything practical to be a lesser species of being, a snobbery almost Victorian in its aloofness," Platt says. "And partly it’s because software engineering has not yet managed to split itself off from computer science, as computer science split itself off from mathematics perhaps 30 years ago."

Ultimately, he says, it's up to employers to recognize the benefit of practical software development training. But the flexibility and innovation promised by Internet-fueled higher education promises to at least up end the status quo.

"The new model will succeed if and only if employers accept the new types of degrees," he says. "I think they probably will, and in fact they may even come to value them more than the classic model."

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