Two people graduate from high school. Both are deemed adults by their society: they can drive, vote, rent an apartment, join the military, go to jail, get married. (Paradoxically in the US, they can’t drink alcohol legally.) They can reproduce. One of these two people goes to college; the other takes a job. The one who goes to college pays; the one who takes a job gets paid. They’re both learning something new, by means of written learning materials, guidance from masters in the field, discussion, self-study, and practice. After a year the college student has 3 more years to go until graduation; the one who took a job can do work at a professional level of competence.
Two people graduate from college. One goes to graduate school; the other takes a job. The grad student neither pays nor is paid; the one who took the job gets paid. They’re both learning something new, by means of written learning materials, guidance from masters in the field, discussion, self-study, and practice. After a year both the grad student and the one who took a job can do work at a professional level of competence.
Adults are capable of learning on their own, without having to pay professionals to teach them. They can read, think, discuss, ask questions of those who know more than they do. Teachers can be beneficial to adult learning, having greater expertise than the students. Teachers can also infantilize their adult students by perpetuating dependency relationships firmly established in childhood. Quantitatively or qualitatively, it’s not clear whether adult students learn better among themselves or under the supervision and tutelage of an expert.
Adult students can be useful to experts. Beginning by performing menial tasks, students can rapidly acquire the skills and knowledge required to attain some core competencies in their professors’ areas of expertise, even becoming active contributors to the professors’ research. It would seem a fair trade for the professors to guide the students’ learning in exchange for the students’ labor as research assistants. What about students who want only an overview of several academic disciplines, without gaining competence as a practitioner in those disciplines? Give them a set of standard reading materials and a forum for discussion and let them have at it. Or an advanced student who is attaining competence in that field can teach — just as grad students often do now.
I don’t see why college shouldn’t be organized like graduate school. No money changes hands. Students learn, gradually attaining competence in doing work in the fields they study. Professors do research, benefiting in their labs from the work their students gradually learn to perform. It’s still not quite as good a deal for the students as taking a paying job, but it’s better than having to pay their own money — or their parents’ money or the taxpayers’ money — to do something they could do on their own or in a cooperative exchange with professors that’s mutually beneficial.
Why isn’t college organized this way? In part it’s because a college degree is widely regarded as an entry requirement for higher-status, more enjoyable, better-paying jobs, and so spending the time as full-time learners eventually pays off financially. Also, there’s the intrinsic value of learning for its own sake, a value for which there is no financial reward. But why should students have to pay for these opportunities to learn and to advance their career prospects, rather than just putting in the time and effort? In no small part it’s because college professors don’t get paid enough to do the work in the fields of research in which they’ve attained expertise. They have to support themselves financially, in full or in part, by teaching. The government, which at one time covered the teaching expenses for college students just as they still do for primary and secondary school, no longer pays the full cost. That could have meant fewer professors handling larger class sizes in order to keep education free for the students. Instead it means that the students have to pay more and more out of their own pockets to cover their professors’ salaries.
In order to preserve this source of income, the professors and their administrators sell the value not just of advanced education but of the college degree. Adults can learn on their own, individually or collectively, but they cannot bestow a degree on themselves or on one another. Only universities are authorized to dispense this particular credential. If you want it, you’re going to have to pay for it.
Increasingly, areas of work expertise are transformed into areas of teaching specialization, while universities are transformed from research centers into adult education schools. In American liberal arts colleges and community colleges, the professors might not even be expected to do research: they’re paid to teach and only to teach. Maybe it’s always been this way. But does it have to stay this way? Let the taxpaying public finance the research that gets done in the universities (and recoup the return on investment, if there is any, rather than handing it over to industrial investors). Let the learning take care of itself.