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DIYURevised-280p.jpgI went to not one, but two, colleges, and even so, I think it can be fairly said that the bulk of my education over that period came from Blog University, which I attended with much more enthusiasm and diligence than my classes. So I'm instinctually sympathetic to the argument of Anya Kamanetz's DIY U (article here, book here).

But there's a reason I didn't drop out of UCLA despite the fact that I was learning more elsewhere: Accreditation matters. It matters more, in some ways, than the learning does. Just look at the pipeline that Ivy League English majors have into Wall Street firms. They're not getting hired for their skill with a calculator or their feel for a trade. They're getting hired because they have a diploma from Harvard.

So in Kamanetz's world -- a world that I agree would be far better for pure learning -- what steps into the role played by accreditation, both the one you get from the college you went to and the one you get from the relative selectiveness of that college against other colleges? More standardized testing? In some ways, I see the DIY U concept applying more to lifetime learning, where accreditation is less important, than to post-high school learning, where you're largely trying to separate yourself out from an undifferentiated mass of job applicants.

By Ezra Klein  |  April 23, 2010; 7:17 AM ET
Categories:  Education  
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It's important to remember that knowledge of content is only part of what you acquire in higher education. The (or at least one) other part is a cognitive skill set. So, to take a specific example, although the blogosphere is a great place to learn about HCR policy, it's not a particularly helpful place to learn to write clear, concise essays or blog posts about HCR policy. For that, one needs (or is at least greatly benefited by) the experience of writing essay after essay in college, having those essays critiqued by professors/graduate student teaching assistants, learning from those comments, etc. Now, as class sizes become larger and larger, and student/teacher interaction becomes less and less frequent, I can see how the gap between university education and self-education begins to close. However, at least when done well, a university education does provide something unique in terms of education.

Also, it should not go without mentioning that the social experience of attending university is invaluable (just in terms of having four years to interact with other young, curious individuals who are unburdened or at least much less burdened by job-related pressures).

Posted by: RyanD1 | April 23, 2010 8:48 AM | Report abuse

The accreditation you get from Harvard is not 'college' -- it is 'Harvard'.

A better comparison is to the non-flagship state colleges where people are actually buying education credentials from less than 'name' schools.

Posted by: grooft | April 23, 2010 9:53 AM | Report abuse

The accreditation you get from Harvard is not 'college' -- it is 'Harvard'.

A better comparison is to the non-flagship state colleges where people are actually buying education credentials from less than 'name' schools.

Check out the College for $99/month links from the WashingtonMonthly for more on accreditation.

Posted by: grooft | April 23, 2010 10:02 AM | Report abuse

I went to art school, and now I spend my time doing database development. I took printmaking and paper making and painting classes, life drawing, photography, and sculpture. And metal working. And use none of it, as a practical skill set, on a regular basis.

That being said, it was the best 4 years of my life, nothing is ever likely to compare, and I would not trade it for the world.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | April 23, 2010 10:10 AM | Report abuse

Ezra, can you recommend any blogs that talk about higher ed--new pedagogical methods, lifelong learning, technology and education, etc. Thanks!

Posted by: imherefortheezra | April 23, 2010 10:13 AM | Report abuse

Following up on Kevin Willis's comment: I went to poetry school (ok, I got a BA in English Lit.) and now I spend my time building websites and dealing with CMS's.

Those college years broadened my experience and expanded the realm of my imagination such that I do emphatically use what I learned then as a practical skill set, on a regular basis now.

This kind of face-to-face education is as important for people in higher ed as it is for when they're in high school. In fact, it's the combination of traditional methods with online communication that's become pretty much the norm at most institutions today.

Ironically enough, it's exactly where the traditional half of this mix has been cut out that many universities have run into costly disasters.

On a historical note, I'd say you had the same claims made back in the old days -- only they used to be called 'correspondence courses' and you were sent a vinyl record or cassette tape every week. That was going to do away with traditional education as well.

Posted by: leoklein | April 23, 2010 10:34 AM | Report abuse

"Just look at the pipeline that Ivy League English majors have into Wall Street firms"

Do you have, like, any data to back this up? When I graduated from the runt Ivy, the people getting Street jobs were predominately majoring in at least semi-relevant or quantitative fields: Physics, Math, Computer Science, Economics, Engineering.

Posted by: NicholasBeaudrot | April 23, 2010 10:55 AM | Report abuse

The other issue is that it's not like, say, Yale students don't also attend DIY U. In my experience, it's those students who are also reading voraciously books and websites both related and unrelated to their classes.

Posted by: Hopeful9 | April 23, 2010 11:05 AM | Report abuse

I don't know. I feel like people are always talking about how a degree is just a credential, so why did I (or, my parents) pay so much for a brand-name private liberal arts college? After all, you don't learn anything "practical" at a private liberal arts college, and certainly nothing more than you would from a cheaper state school (so the argument goes).

But I don't know. Somehow, I can't help but think that I really did learn a *lot* from my college experience - that I wouldn't have learned at most other schools. I had small classes, and flexible departments that allowed me to double major in Math and Sociology so that I could gain a broad set of methodological skills. I was able to do interesting, real research with professors as an undergraduate in two disciplines (Sociology and Psychology). I learned how to write, how to analyze data, how to think critically - and you know, most people talk about "thinking critically" as a meaningless buzz word, but it's honestly maybe the most important thing I got from my college experience. I can read someone else's sociology research, or investigative journalism, or neuroscience research, or a movie, or someone's discussion of race on Twitter, or whatever else, and critically analyze it within its context to come up with my own judgment of how successful it was and what its creators/investigators could have done differently to improve the discussion and conclusions. I don't think most people have that depth of critical analysis, and I certainly didn't before college and the excellent professors I had who emphasized these kinds of skills so much.

So, yes, my education was probably overpriced. But since I was lucky enough to be able to afford it, I wouldn't trade it for anything. $50k a year or whatever is a ton of money, but I can't think of anything more worthwhile I could have spent it on, given my and my family's basic needs were met adequately.

Posted by: madjoy | April 23, 2010 12:48 PM | Report abuse

I've long thought there was a good role for unions and professional organizations in terms of this kind of credentialling.

Posted by: MikeT5 | April 23, 2010 5:12 PM | Report abuse

FYI, the title of the book is somewhat misleading. While Kamenetz does talk about and advocate for outside-the-system forms of higher education, the majority of the book deals with ways to improve quality and cost at established higher-ed institutions, from top-tier private schools like Harvard to state universities to community colleges to the for-profit sector (e.g. University of Phoenix). And while erhaps not sufficiently to assuage all of Ezra's concerns, Kamenetz also addresses the issue of accredidation for self-directed learning. (Conflict of interest alert: I edited the book while employed at her publisher; I've since jumped ship and don't work there anymore.)

Posted by: JonathanTE | April 27, 2010 3:12 PM | Report abuse

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