The conflicting functions of universities

I alluded to this in my previous blog post, but I think it deserves some explicit attention. In some of my recent conversations about the direction of the Online Masters of Science in Computer Science at Georgia Tech, I’ve come to believe that this question is at the core of many of the questions we wrestle with when developing courses in higher education.

What is the function of college? In other words, what goal does college accomplish? That’s a big nebulous question, so let me narrow it down a bit: what is the function of undergraduate education at research universities?

I see two competing functions. First, I see the function that higher education sees in itself. As seen by many professors and administrators,  I would argue that the function many see in higher education is the creation, maintenance, and dissemination of knowledge. Research institutions are called ‘research’ institutions for a reason, after all, but research is not merely about uncovering knowledge; it’s also about communicating knowledge so that a new generation can grow that knowledge. Thus, I would argue that teaching is well within the function of universities, as seen by universities themselves (despite data indicating the contrary).

That’s the function I would argue universities see in themselves. However, I would argue that there is a conflict between that function and the function that students derive from college. For the most part, students attend college to get a better job. To be somewhat unscientific, a quick Google search on “why go to college” corroborates this: the majority of the top results focus on the increased earning potential of individuals who attended college. Other benefits come up as well, but given the massive investment in getting an undergraduate degree, it’s certainly reasonable to expect a sizable return on investment.

So, to summarize that, on the one hand we have universities that are focused on the creation and dissemination of knowledge, and on the other we have students focused on job training and placement[1]. That Venn diagram may sometimes have an intersection, but I would argue that most often, it does not. The things we learn in undergraduate classrooms often have very little applicability to the real world. Getting an undergraduate education is less often about what you learn and more often about proving that you can do so; a person that can graduate from Georgia Tech with a degree in Computer Science can learn the skills necessary to do a particular job, but simply having that degree does not suggest they already have those skills.

This is often a point of contention for students in my experience. Students often ask when they will use something in the real world. In our Knowledge-Based AI class, we do often receive feedback from students that they would like to see examples that are more applicable to their job. While this feedback is understandable, it doesn’t fall into the function most of us attribute to the Masters degree. Others will disagree with me, of course, but I would argue that few research universities view their degree programs as job training, and thus, few would be eager to revise their curricula to bring them more in line with the demands of the job market.

So, we have students treating higher education as job training, while higher education does not regard itself as job training. Is this a problem? I would argue yes; the massive cost of higher education is associated with the cost of the creation and dissemination of knowledge, not with cost of job training. Getting a Bachelors degree to get a good job is like buying house just to have a front lawn. If job training is the goal, we can accomplish it more cheaply and efficiently, while also allowing research universities to focus on the types of knowledge creation that they were built to do.

Ultimately, I would argue that the goals of research universities and the goals of students at research universities are remarkably misaligned. Moreover, I would argue that universities shouldn’t modify themselves to come more into alignment with what students are using them for; alternative, more affordable solutions are necessary to allow job seekers to get job training and knowledge seekers to get knowledge.

Full disclaimer: I work for Udacity, and Udacity’s Nanodegree credentials are a step in the direction of streamlining the function that I claim students are deriving from higher education. You wouldn’t be off-base to believe I’m simply biased in favor of the company I work for. In actuality, however, initiatives like the Nanodegree credentials are why I work for Udacity; I wholeheartedly believe in its mission to make it easier for students to get what they’ve wanted all along.

[1] I don’t mean to claim this distinction is purely black-and-white; there are certainly students that go to college to learn and grow knowledge, and there are certainly departments and individuals at the college level that are concerned with their graduates’ job placement. When thinking about the primary goals these groups have in mind, though, I’d argue my distinction holds: students primarily use college as a step toward a career, and universities generally consider themselves to be bastions of knowledge.

One thought on “The conflicting functions of universities”

  1. Agreed 🙂
    I set out with a goal, and originally, the Georgia Tech OMSCS program was a path to that goal. I now see that my purpose is more direct and aligns with industry training, online courses, and practice.

    Thanks for the great post and lessons!

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