The Higher Education Business Model Sucks The Big One


Years ago, when I was living in New York, I played ice hockey. I was a decent player, but I had a problem making abrupt stops and tight turns. So to up my game, I decided to get skating lessons.

Getting skating lessons seemed easy enough. I lived in Long Beach, and literally five blocks from my condo was the Long Beach Arena—a hockey facility renowned for its leagues and skating instruction. And, as an added bonus, the arena had just acquired the services of a wicked good Russian instructor who immigrated to Brooklyn after the fall of communism. “This is going to be great,” I said to myself. “I’m going to wow my teammates next season.”

When I went to sign up for skating lessons, however, I was in for quite a shock. I entered the arena and saw a girl handing out rental skates. So I went over and asked her how one goes about signing up for skating lessons. She told me I had to speak to the admissions director. “Okay,” I said, “where is the admissions director?” She then pointed me to some lady sitting at a desk in an office next to the snack bar.

The admissions director was delighted that I wanted to improve my skating abilities. But before I could hit the ice, she informed me, I had to complete an application. She then handed me an application.

The application seemed simple enough at first, but then I noticed that I was required to submit an essay, a letter of recommendation, and a history of my community service. “Whoa,” I said to the admissions director, “are these requirements really necessary?” “Yes,” she retorted. “We need to make sure you’re serious about skating.”

Weird, I thought to myself. But that’s okay. I’ll write an essay about how I always dreamed of making the perfect hockey stop, get a recommendation from one of my teammates, and hope my years of picking up dead animals at my job will suffice for the community service requirement.

I then asked the admissions director how soon after I submitted my application could I expect to start taking lessons. “About six months to a year,” she answered. Six months to a year! Why? Was there a waiting list? Nope. No waiting list. The admissions director then explained to me that I couldn’t begin the lessons until I completed all the prerequisite classes. She then handed me a piece of paper outlining the prerequisites.

  • History of Power Skating
  • Sociology of Skating
  • Math for Skaters
  • Skating in Modern Cinema
  • Frozen Modalities: The Intersection of Income Inequality and Zamboni Machine Operation

“Really?” I said to the admissions director. “I just want to take some freakin’ skating lessons. Why are you making this so hard?”

The admissions director didn’t answer me. She just looked at me rather sadly and said, “You’re obviously not serious about skating, Mr. Groovy. I think you should go somewhere else for lessons.”

The above story obviously didn’t happen. I went down to the Long Beach Arena and signed up for 10 skating lessons. And while I didn’t exactly wow my teammates when the next season came around, my skating abilities were measurably better (thank you, Russian instructor).

But what if I didn’t want to become a supreme skater? What if I wanted to become an accountant, or a nurse, or a Ruby on Rails programmer? The above nonsense, assuming I turned to college for instruction, would be all too real.

And I don’t get it. I have a degree in journalism. Of the forty classes I took to get that credential, maybe a third pertained to writing and journalism. The rest were bullsh*t.

Why are we making the acquisition of skills so hard? Why are we forcing people to buy more schooling than is necessary?

The current business model of higher education sucks the big one. And if you don’t think so, just imagine if you had a choice. You could get the same credential (a vaunted college degree) by taking forty classes or by taking just the twelve or fifteen classes that pertained to your major. Would you take the bullsh*t classes if you didn’t have to? Would you advise your son or daughter to go for the full college experience and take all those bullsh*t classes?

Higher education fancies itself as the linchpin of civilization. It’s not. It’s glorified trade school. And the sooner we recognize this, the better we’ll be.

It’s time to humble the college-industrial complex. Allow students to un-bundle the college experience. Americans need skills. They don’t need professor-led navel-gazing and massive amounts of debt.

Okay, groovy freedomists. There’s my rant for the week. Have a great weekend.

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  1. It should be about capabilities and not credentials. That’s so 80’s. I pity the college kids today as they are caught in an arms race with the schools being the only winners. It takes guts to shun college. The system is pathetic.

    • Mr. Groovy

      THANK YOU , IAN! You nailed it. I think we should make you Secretary of Education. For years I’ve been saying that college should be skills based rather than diploma based. What does the typical college diploma indicate anyway? What specific skills does the typical college graduate possess? I have a master’s degree in public administration. And you know what skills I had once I received that vaunted credential? None that the labor market cared about. I didn’t possess any worthwhile skills until I taught myself how to program and manage a database. You are so right, my friend. The only people winning in our pathetic higher education system are tenured professors, administrators, and football and basketball coaches. Meh.

  2. It’s so frustrating. Most Americans don’t have the time, patience, and money to pursue a credential so larded down with cognitive junk. And the people who actually have the power to change things–the administrators and professors running higher education today–are the ones who rage the most about “income inequality” and “college affordability.” But rather than devise an inexpensive, no-nonsense credential that upsets the status quo, they’d rather point the steely finger of indignation at evil bankers and wretched Republicans. Sigh.

    The only thing that will effect change is a massive boycott. Students got to stop going to football games, stop joining fraternities and clubs, stop living in the dorms, and stop taking classes that don’t pertain to their majors. Until they do that, nothing will change. And we’ll just continue to lament the hundreds of thousands of young people who leave college with ruinous debt and no worthwhile skills.

    Thanks for stopping by, Elsie. I really appreciate your thoughts. You nailed it. College should be about acquiring skills, not about overcoming false barriers.

  3. I’m currently navigating the ridiculousness of general Ed required learning for my bachelors degree and I have to say it’s as bullshit as you say it is. I’ve always felt like educational institutions have built these false barriers to acquiring skills. The barriers are not based on making us better, they’re more about weeding out people over time.

    I’ve thought over and over again of studying abroad, where people my age could have two or three bachelors degrees by my age. The U.S. needs to stop teaching to required classes and get to the point!

    • Mr. Groovy

      Now, if only we could get high school juniors and seniors to think that way too (and the parents of high school juniors and seniors). I cringe whenever I hear about a recent college grad who has $80k in student loans and marginal job prospects. It’s so unnecessary. Thanks for stopping by, Holly.