Challenge: Disrupting the Privilege of Higher Education


This a new post series I’m testing to create a discussion–and hopefully some actions–around big topics. I would love to hear your thoughts.

I cannot stop thinking about this statistic Bruce Mau quoted in Future Practice:

Less the one percent of the world’s population has had access to education beyond high school.

Two questions come to mind with this statement, which I’ll use to probe some discussion in a two-part (or more) series. First up: how might we increase access to post-secondary education for more people around the globe?

Let’s put that percentage into perspective. As I publish this post today, nearly 72 million people have been educated in a post-secondary school, while 7.1 billion people have not.

72,000,000 went to post-secondary school

7,200,000,000 did not

For my geographically-inclined friends, 72 million people equals the combined population of California, Texas and Virginia. Imagine if only those residents and no one else in the entire world had post-secondary education. (Luckily those 72 million people are not concentrated in one small part of the world but rather dispersed (unevenly) across seven continents.)

Okay, enough with the statistics; I think you get the point.

To address the challenge “how might we increase access to post-secondary education for more people around the globe?” let’s look at a few factors: the purpose of education and current methods of learning.

Why Education?

In the TED talk “The Social Brain and It’s Superpowers”, Neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman turns Maslow’s hierarchy of needs upside down based on scientific research conducted on the brain’s response to ‘social pain.’ He proposes that connectivity and social well-being are the essential building blocks for a happy, fulfilled life, as opposed to food, shelter, and water. Think about it: if you have strong relationships with fellow human beings first, then food, water, and shelter will come through those connections. Makes sense, right?

Lieberman goes on to talk about how social well-being affects learning and skill building (12:45).

Getting more social is the secret to getting smarter, happier, and more productive… In the classroom, being social is treated as the enemy of learning. But it turns out that if you learn in order to teach someone else, you learn better than if you learn in order to take a test. Research in my lab and in another have shown that when you’re socially motivated to learn, the social brain can do the learning and it can do it better than the analytical network that you typically activate when you try to memorize.

Based on Lieberman’s analysis above, education is not only for ‘hard’ skills building but even more so for social skills building.

Scaling the Essentials of Education

Now let’s build upon the basis that education is for learning both ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ skills, with an emphasis on the former. Colleges and universities continue to build upon learnings from primary and secondary school with students focusing on one topic more than others in preparation for the ‘real’ world. Social skills are learned within the classroom (more so with team projects and workshops) along with outside the classroom through extracurricular activities–where true social skills are developed.

But these institutions are expensive to run as we’ve seen with continuous rising costs and universities adopting ‘business’ mindsets. How might we adopt the basics of learning skills through social interactions to scale and reach, let’s say, another 1% of the world’s population (72 million)?

We have a few working examples in place that begin to chip away at this deficit.

There are the all too familiar online universities which most Americans have seen advertised, like University of Phoenix and ITT Tech, along with a bounty of free courses by major universities, like MIT’s OpenCourseWare and Harvard’s Open Learning Initiative. New online learning platforms like the Khan Academy and Coursera make available a wide range of topics for anyone who has access to the internet. And numerous podcasts have similar intentions: make more content available to a larger audience through the internet.

These all focus on hard skills well but isn’t half of learning about social skills?

Self-organized courses utilizing the internet like +Acumen’s free leadership courses provide the tools and structure for people to learn together anywhere in the world. I participated in the Human-Centered Design course and I felt that it successfully built both hard and soft skills with a team-based and real-world challenge.

And then there are the learn-as-you-go methods. From Hack-a-thons to startup accelerators to fellowships to just about anything you undertake once you’re out of the formal education system, these new and old methods represent the lifetime of learning and growing we all go through when working with a partner, team, or organization.

Restating the Challenge

Based on the information gathered above (which, I realize, is not fully comprehensive and could go on for multiple pages), the question “how might we increase access to post-secondary education for more people around the globe?” needs to be turned inside out. We need to look at what is really gained from post-secondary education and how that can be applied to a scalable effort–degree or not. This is where you come in. I would love to hear your thoughts on the following questions:

  • What are the fundamentals learned during post-secondary education that are most valuable to you?
  • What are examples you’ve seen where the current system has been replaced or reconfigured? 
  • What alternatives to formal education have you found to be the most valuable?
  • Degree vs experience–what are the benefits to either or both?

Next up we will build on your responses to apply this to design education–or perhaps take a different turn.

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