The rising cost and declining value of higher education in the United States has undoubtedly been one of the key grievances of upstart social justice movements like Occupy Wall Street. And the anger is beginning to boil over — just look at the students at Baruch College, one of New York’s historically affordable city universities, who were whipped into a frenzy after an especially devastating tuition hike last month.
For many middle class and low-income students and families drowning in debt, the struggle is becoming a long-overdue audit of cost vs. value in the college education system. Naturally, the outdated model has already inspired some to move their search for knowledge entirely online, and as time passes and offline costs rise, it’s looking like it might not be a bad idea.
Online degrees still haven’t reached the level of gravitas traditionally associated with paper diplomas, of course. But free ‘webducation’ offerings like those recently announced by established institutions like M.I.T. are in a position to change all that. The web, after all, does not discriminate based on social background or income, meaning platforms like M.I.T.’s OpenCourseWare could provide the boost needed to spark a mass-exodus towards open education alternatives.
The tide is rising outside of academia as well: Tools like Kio Stark’s crowd-funded handbook Don’t Go Back To School promise to put self-education back in style, as long as we can all re-program ourselves into disciplined scholars. This might seem a bit pipe-dreamy seeing as how the internet may have a lot to do with our decreasing attention spans. But considering the current economic climate, it may not be too outlandish to suggest that a new generation of autodidacts is on the horizon. Moreover, if things keep going the way they are, we may not have a choice.