We all have that one thing in our lives we keep around without really knowing why. If you live and work in a big city, you may still have your car from the days when you used to live in the suburbs. At one time, the car had a purpose. But now? It just collects parking tickets and bird poop.
If you think hard enough, you can probably find something like this in your life. The same is true for society as a whole. Have you ever seen a pay phone and wondered why it's still there?
Some things outlive their usefulness. Is a traditional college education one of them?
Why we used to need college
Long before the Internet came along, in post-WWII America, information and knowledge were hard to come by. Knowledge was largely centralized in the universities, so if you wanted to gain the education necessary to obtain a middle-class job, you needed to go college. And the government paid you to go to college through programs like the GI bill.
Somewhere along the way, though, things changed. College tuition started rising more than the cost of living, and wages stopped increasing, making college a questionable financial investment. The quality of a college education began to decline, and employers started to realize that doing well in college didn't correlate with doing well in a real-world job. The old system started breaking down.
But what if we could find jobs that didn't require a traditional college degree? And what if we could find a way to acquire the knowledge required to be successful in those jobs without incurring $100K in student loans?
With the decentralization of knowledge, we can acquire the education to be successful without a traditional college education and, at the same time, find good jobs that don't require traditional college degrees. The infrastructure for this type of system is already being built, and the disruption of the traditional university system has begun.
Why we won't need college
Have you ever watched a how-to video on YouTube? Or searched Wikipedia for an article on a topic you didn't quite understand? These are simple examples of how the Internet has decentralized knowledge over the past 20 years. Imagine if we could extend these examples to replace an entire college education.
Udacity and Kahn Academy, which give you the tools to educate yourself for free, are building the infrastructure for this new system. If you question the quality of the education you can get from MOOCs, organizations like Dev Bootcamp provide apprentice-like experience for much less than a college degree.
If these non-traditional options are too risky for you, there are more traditional options available to you that avoid an expensive college degree and still give you access to a good middle-class job.
The main reason most of us don't take advantage of this type of education is because most employers don't accept it. Lucky for you, the employment infrastructure suited for this type of education is being created, too.
Are you a computer programmer? Apple gives you access to millions of customers through its App Store. Are you an author? Amazon has a platform for independent publishers. Are you a film buff who dreams of producing videos? YouTube lets you do that.
Many of these options are still unproven, and the path won't be easy for the early adopters. There's a lot of risk in self-employment, and there are questions about the quality of MOOCs. But, with rising college costs and stagnating wages, we're not being given much choice. Necessity is, after all, the mother of invention. The opportunity is there for you.
You just need to grab it.
Brent Ritter is a Chicago-based writer and a recovering financial professional. Connect with him on LinkedIn or follow him on Twitter.
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