The Higher Education Question

I enjoyed listening to Bill Kristol interviewing Peter Thiel on his podcast - both interviews are worth a listen. The first interview dates from 2014, around the time Zero to One was released.

Thiel has strongly held and well-publicized views on the value of higher education. The university experience is not dramatically different than it was two or three decades ago - it just costs 400% more than it did in 1980 (post inflation). The student debt curve is very steep and getting steeper:


At the same time, the nature of work is changing. Outside of a few elite programs, university is no longer the best option to learn about cutting-edge technologies that will drive the future of work. It certainly isn't the nimblest. And it's an increasingly expensive way to acquire essentially a generalist skill-set: significant re-education and retooling will be required to keep pace with change over the next 30-50 years.

I would also imagine that the value of a university degree from all but the most elite colleges is quickly eroding. Skills acquired from certification programs like the Flatiron School, cheap or free online courses, or self-education from the proliferation of content, can be immediately applied in a real world setting. ROI is nearly infinite and the cycle time is short. 

We don't know what the future of work will look like, but we know with a high degree of certainty that work will be very different. According to one estimate by two Oxford researchers, 47% of US jobs will not exist by 2033. 

David Perrell, The Future of Work

David Perrell, The Future of Work

It was one thing to invest time or money in a college education when the employment market was relatively static - the jobs were in military, agriculture, financial services. It's another thing entirely when many jobs we now do won't exist in 30 years, and the jobs we will do don't yet exist. 

This isn't to say a college degree is no longer worth it. For some it certainly is - but I don't think its such a no brainer anymore. The situation is stark enough to call into question on an individual basis whether a 4-year and six-figure expenditure will have the kind of ROI one would expect from an investment of this quantum. 

What other possibilities might exist for 4 years of time and (if you are fortunate enough) that kind of money?