ED: The Quebec student protests, which drew more than 500,000 to the streets of Montreal last week, is an undeniable hot topic — especially because, little by little, outsiders are slowly understanding it isn't just about Quebec. It isn't simply about radical politics. Or even viral casseroles.
But, Rabble writer Ellen Russell asserts, it's also a hot-button news demonized by the Anglo media, often portrayed as an issue limited to Quebeckers, to entitled students, to black-clad anarchists. All are false.
Even the mainstream media is beginning to admit as much. Is debt an issue confined to Quebec? Well, the New York Times recently published a story about how state funding for education is shrinking, leaving crushing debt on American students. (For example, 62 per cent of Bowling Green students, in Ohio, graduate $30,000 in the hole.) Is debt an issue limited to students? Nope. The Grid, a Toronto alt-weekly, recently published a story about "premature affluence," arguing that Gen-Y is becoming too comfortable with debt, with the belief that "their income will catch up." And is it radical? The Globe and Mail's Rob Carrick doesn't think so—it's reflective of very real financial fissures emerging between generations.
So let's see the Quebec's protests for what they really are: They're about debt, and they're about what we call the education bubble. Read on. -Mark Teo
A bubble, in the economic sense of the word, is what happens when the price of an asset — houses, dot coms, seventeenth century Dutch tulips — gets way out of whack with that asset's intrinsic value. Over the past few years, we've seen a couple of pretty major bubbles swell and then burst, resulting in what some might term a catastrophic economic meltdown. And as we're still dealing with the shockwavesof these crashes past, one might think we'd be hawk-like in our vigilance for the next event on the global horizon. But the weird thing with economic bubbles is that just like their playful, soapy cousins, they're kind of hard to see. Especially when you're inside one.
Since shortly after the 2008 crash, experts from various fields — economists, educators, administrators, policy makers — have with increasing boldness and detail been putting forward the notion of a higher education bubble. The theory goes something like this: if tuition and other costs associated with post-secondary education continue to spiral upwards, it's only a matter of time before students and their families simply cease to be able to afford school. Once this breaking point is reached, the bubble bursts. Prices will come crashing down as enrollment plummets and the demand for degrees and diplomas all but evaporates, and those unlucky learners who've already begged and borrowed the exorbitant sums required to pay for school will be left holding little but very expensive pieces of parchment in place of what were once considered essential commodities. In short, your hard-bought credentials will be worthless (or at least, worth less) but you'll still be paying for them until you're old and gray and full of sleep.
A Break Down
The scenario's pretty scary, but for all the writing being done on the subject, no one seems to know what to do about it. So let's unpack it, bit by bit. Can the value of a university degree really be discussed in the same terms as the price of shares in OvervaluedWebsite.com? Should we really be comparing universities and colleges to subprime mortgage lenders, and degrees and diplomas to consumer goods? And assuming all this gloom and doom is true, what are the indebted consumers of educational products supposed to do about it once the whole thing goes pop?
Since this is economics, let's look first at supply and demand. The demand for education is a complicated thing. As good jobs get scarcer and the number of graduates continues to grow, there's a kind of education arms race happening. Add to that schools' ever-increasing variety of available programs and credentials on offer, and the extra complexity that for-profit institutions bring to the picture. Universities and colleges, accredited educational institutions, are the only entities equipped to provide the product that consumers, their students, demand. This puts the schools in an all-powerful position to not only supply credentials, but to create a demand for their products that never existed before — or at least, not in the same way. The result is a system where the price of an education routinely outstrips cost-recovery levels by an order of magnitude, where many consumers are priced right out of the game, and where the 2011 debt load of Canadian students will reach an estimated $20 billion and surpass the national credit card debt total for the first time in history.
Oh yes, debt. Because, of course, bubbles are nothing without bloat, and the cost of a Canadian post-secondary education has gone the way of a belly after too much beer. StatsCanreports that national average tuition fees for the 2010-2011 school year increased about four percent from fees in 2009-2010, and this after 2009-2010 had already been three and a half percent more expensive than 2008-2009. For years now, tuition in Canada has been rising at roughly twice the rate of inflation, totaling a fourfold price increase over the past two decades with no end in sight. And that's not all, folks. Over and above tuition, additional compulsory fees at Canadian schools are exploding at a rate of about seven percent per year, nationally speaking — but students in Alberta, for example, were facing a jump of about 24 percent in those mandatory expenditures from what they paid this time last year.
These numbers are lots of things to lots of people: heavy, and upsetting, and eerily reminiscent of the way things looked south of the border, right before the housing bubble went bust. Productive, however, they are not.
Until recently, there was no indication that anyone might just opt out of the scheme entirely and decide to make their own fun. Value for tuition money aside, there's a growing movement that believes learning outside the traditional classroom is just as valuable as the information gleaned from the lectures and seminars we're all so familiar with. And so we're brought to another definition to aid us in these troubled times.
A do-it-yourself, semi-anarchic attitude towards teaching, learning, and credentials, prophetically coined in May of 2008. It's a reaction against the corporatization and commercialization of education, and its success as a movement relies heavily on open-source resources and the internet for the spread of information and ideas, and it's catching on quickly. The movement has one of its most eloquent disciples in writer and activist Anya Kemenetz, author of several tomes of educational theory and lore including, most applicably, DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education.
To Kemenetz, and to other edupunks, university or college are just two of many equally legitimate paths to a vibrant career and productive work life. College is really the archetypal rite of passage in our society. It's reinforced in a million books and movies that this is the place where you become an adult, she says of the seemingly universal demand for post-secondary education. Higher education became part of the North American dream because it satisfies two contradictory impulses in our culture: democracy and meritocracy. Democratic because education is supposed to be a more open path to success than one based on family name or wealth. Meritocraticbecause college is supposed to be an objective way of picking winners: the best and the brightest.
Instead of the accepted norm — go to school, get degree, get entry-level job, get promoted — an edupunk seeks out alternative routes towards higher learning. Think volunteering, intense long-term internships, and a patchwork of online and experienced-based courses that all combine to comprise credentials that are arguably more robust that anything you could learn in a classroom. And though you may not come out the end of your four years with a definable piece of paper or set of initials to add to your name, there are more and more institutions that do offer credit for these extra-extracurriculars. Kemenetz cites LearningCounts.org as one example, but currently, several colleges offer 'credit for prior learning' where you construct a portfolio to demonstrate what you've learned. You can get the knowledge anywhere — from an internship, from a website like Khan Academy — and translate it into credits far more cheaply than if you took the equivalent course.
"Turning a college education into a commodity that can be exchanged for a higher-wage job is a really one-dimensional view."
But what about professionals whose credentials are non-negotiable, like doctors, lawyers, dentists, and architects? "This is the two trillion dollar question," Kemenetz says. "There's two ways around it. The first is alternative forms of credentialling. The second is for traditional colleges to offer assessment and certification for open or edupunk-stylelearning. I think the answer is both of them together."
Of course it's the high tech industries, the ones that rely the most on practical experience and reputation for their success, that are already making the transition. "People in cutting-edge fields — design, programming — are using reputation-based networks like Behance and Github, and industry-specific credentials like Microsoft certification or Mozilla badges, to find jobs without needing a diploma."
Like the housing and tech (and yes, even the tulip) bubbles before it, the higher education bubble is predicated on the notion of post-secondary credentials as sure-bet assets to their investors, the Canadian student. Consider the way we frame going to school now: not in terms of learning, of expanding minds and horizons, but only in terms of graduate employability. Are you in your program because you love it, or because you want a job at the end of four years?
You need passion for your work, you need a reason to be there.
To think of higher education as an asset is one thing, but to frame it as a commodity, a product, to liken a degree to a fancy car or a designer handbag, is problematic. "Turning a college education into a commodity that can be exchanged for a higher-wage job is a really one-dimensional view. It ignores the benefits to society of having a group of people with an expanded outlook on life," sums up Kamenetz.
And yet this monetary mode of thinking has proven toxic to the legions of unemployed 20-somethingsnow lurking in the parents' basements of the nation, degrees in one hand and past-due payment notices for student loans in the other. They bought what they'd been: that education equals employment. But with global youth unemployment as yet unrecovered from its deep-recession lows, it's just not that simple anymore, and we're finding out you need more than credentials to get a good job. You need passion for your work, you need a reason to be there. If you want a career, to heed a calling, you'll need a heck of a lot more than just a four-year degree.
Lucy Zhao has an undergraduate degree in psychology. She didn't get it because she wanted to be a psychologist, and in fact she has no intention of returning to school to study psychology further. After undergrad, Zhao took a year off paid work to volunteer with Out On Bay Street, a social and political organization that promotes queer-positive attitudes and spaces within Toronto's business community. Her work there took her down many roads, and — among several other worthy projects — she recently headed a Kickstartercampaign that raised over $50,000 in a month to finance a documentary. So what's next? A high profile, high-paying consulting gig?
Actually, no. "In September of this year I'll be going back to school to get my MBA," admits Zhao. "I'd gone into business school just a year after coming out of undergrad, and I just wasn't ready to go. I didn't really have a strict direction I wanted to go in, but I didn't want to go just for the sake of continuing, of doing the next step." But it's not just any old MBA that Zhao's after. She'll be going to the school of her choice, in Beijing, focused and enthusiastic in a way that she couldn't have been before her year away from the halls of higher learning.
“I'm going back now because I'm really interested in entrepreneurship, and I want to harness my ideas about social innovation,” she explains, adding that she's also looking forward to buffing up her Mandarin and getting the “international cultural experience. And if I hadn't gotten into one of my two choice schools, I wouldn't be going at all. I wasn't going to settle for less. I think a lot of people settle. Sometimes people go to school just for the heck of getting an MBA.”
But in light of all the conversation over bubbles bursting, wouldn't it be more prudent to just start a business venture and skip the MBA (and its price tag)? Not for Zhao. “A lot of people argue about whether entrepreneurship can be taught. The passion and the talent and the ideas behind it, the creativity, those things might come as is —although there are things that can really help break your thought process out of a shell — but business school focuses on how to actually get a business started. I'm going back to school to get the tools I need. I have a lot of ideas I want to try out, and I could just try out my ideas or I could do it as part of my thesis. You can go to school or you can take the money you'd pay for tuition and invest it. It's really about carving out your own ideas and finding your own experiences. Eventually, everyone takes their own route.”
Going your own way, within the education system or outside of it, seems finally to be the only way out of this bubble. And so we can end this as we started it, with a definition, in an effort to perhaps refocus the sprawling complexity of these concepts, to contract and sharpen until we remember what it is we've been talking about, paying for, fighting for, working towards.
It's the process of expanding one's mind and increasing one's knowledge. And it's its own reward. Beyond the promises of higher wages, more prestigious professions, fancier campus sports complexes, and binge drinking, true students like Zhao and the edupunk movement are redefining what it means to learn, to be educated. Bubble or no bubble, that's a vocation worth pursuing.