Is College Necessary?

Last Updated Jun 13, 2008 5:13 PM EDT

With 60 percent of Americans now attending college, Richard Posner asks whether the number might go to 100 percent (don't snort; it wasn't even a century ago that most people didn't go to high school). At first, in his post on the boom in college education, he seems to think yes.
nullThe photo is one I took of St. Catharine's College, Cambridge
"If the intellectual demands of work relative to the physical demands continue to increase, the demand for college will also increase."

But, brilliant contrarian that he is, he then he says school is for fools. Well, actually, he says "a frequent byproduct of technological advance is deskilling."

In other words, as technology improves, we don't need to know so much. Much of the knowledge work we do today could be automated. Or, as he put it:

With advances in neuroscience, artificial intelligence, computer science, robotics, and nanotechnology, many jobs that require a college education today will require little in the way of education tomorrow. Many people may then defer college until retirement, in order to increase the returns to leisure by widening their cultural horizons.

Okay, so school is for old people. Although, will we really trade golf and other leisure activities for tuition payments and exams? Besides, soon Google will obviate the need for college (even as it makes us stupid), by putting all knowledge online and ready for our brains to access, on demand.

School is for the disconnected.

Joking aside, Posner may be playing the court jester here, making the seemingly absurd blindingly obvious. Right now, I can't imagine a media job that doesn't look for at least a college education, and most knowledge jobs require college degrees. But there have always been great writers who were not conventionally educated, and many jobs seem to depend on people skills, not academic credentials. Business schools are already more about building social networks than about learning how to run a business (see Rakesh Khurana's "From Higher Aims to Hired Hands"). Most colleges don't just spit out ready-made employees, either. AdventNet, best-known for its Zoho Web-based applications, calls itself the anti-Google because it not only doesn't seek to hire PhDs, it has started hiring people out of high school, and sending them to "AdventNet University" (see his post How We Recruit ).

Maybe school really is headed for the past.

What do you think?

  • Michael Fitzgerald

    Michael Fitzgerald writes about innovation and other big ideas in business for publications like the New York Times, The Economist, Fast Company, Inc. and CIO. He’s worked as a writer or editor at Red Herring, ZDNet, TechTV and Computerworld, and has received numerous awards as a writer and editor. Most recently, his piece on the hacker collective the l0pht won the 2008 award for best trade piece from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. He was also a 2007 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion.