What Universities Are Actually Good For

And what structures might replace them

[Originally posted on Substack — subscribe here]

I loved my college experience. I really did. But if the purpose of college is solely to enlighten and edify, then we have to acknowledge that colleges have some serious competition.

The twin advantages of a university are the library and the faculty. Libraries are amazing because they make information structured and retrievable, while professors are instrumental in guiding their students towards the insights within a specific scholarly discipline.

The economics building at Brown University — I didn’t spend much time inside, but it’s pretty!

These resources used to be unique to universities, but the advent of the internet has changed that.

Since Wikipedia achieved its status as the dominant encyclopedia on the web, there hasn’t been a library in the world that has even come close to rivaling its scope and scale. No brick and mortar library could possibly compete with the sheer volume of information available online, which is why campus libraries are filled with students on their laptops, not students searching through the stacks.

Professors, too, have been digitized. Though they’re less popular than Wikipedia, online video courses like EdX, Coursera, and Khan Academy have democratized access to quality instructors, and those instructors are often better than the average professor. What’s more, their lessons are typically combined with high-quality animations and video footage, making them more engaging and memorable.

These trends are worthy of celebration. Knowledge shouldn’t be limited to those who are privileged enough to spend their time and money on a four-year degree — knowledge should be accessible to everyone.

(To be sure, internet access is very much not accessible to most people in the world, and these online courses still have price tags that, while cheaper than a college course, are still unaffordable for many; but the trends towards accessibility and affordability are hopeful auguries.)

So, if the primary function of a university is enlightenment and edification, but those are both achievable online, will the university eventually fade into obsolescence?

I argue that it might, but only if a third and crucial ingredient of the university is replaced: its motivation structure.

Universities do more than just provide access to libraries and professors; they also impose a strict set of rules and requirements that force students to actually learn.

If I’m told to write up a biography of Abraham Lincoln for history class, I’ll go to the library (if only to use Wikipedia) and ask my professors for help if I run into any difficulties. If I weren’t participating in a history class, there’s no way I would have the internal motivation to write a biography of anyone.

Universities use a system of carrots and sticks (grades, diplomas, etc.) along with consistent demands (homework, exams, research papers, etc.) to ensure that students engage with the course material and walk away with some understanding of the subject they chose to study. This apparatus is what makes universities valuable nowadays, and its an underrated aspect that has little online competition.

I have all the world’s information available to me at my fingertips, and yet I just lamented to my friends last night about how I wish I knew how to code.

The truth is that accessibility is nothing without motivation. All the resources to learn computer programming (and learn it well) exist online, and yet very few of us will actually reach for that information unless we seriously have to.

It should come as no surprise that Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) like Coursera and EdX have an abysmal completion rate (between 2% and 7% depending on the platform). I myself have purchased some of those very courses and never made it past the first lesson.

Granted, there are those rare self-starters among us who are so motivated to learn for knowledge’s sake that they do complete these courses and gain new skills just for the fun of it. Unfortunately, you and I are probably not in that category.

That’s why I get frustrated when people talk about expanding access to information as if it were a panacea for public education or job training and upskilling. People don’t automatically start learning when knowledge becomes available to them — they learn when they’re motivated (whether externally or internally) to actually start learning.

A lot of people have been poo-pooing universities since Covid hit. They reason that if knowledge is universally democratized and infinitely available on the web (which it practically is), then why should anyone pay an exorbitant amount of money for classes over Zoom?

There are 2 reasons: one is the prestige. College is still a distinctive marker of excelling enough to at least be recognized as adequately intelligent by an admissions committee, so that’s something.

But the far more important reason why colleges are instrumentally useful is because of the incentive structures they provide. Without college, we’d be left without external motivators, and we know how fickle our internal motivation can be (again: there’s that MOOC completion rate).

A student in college will be graded on their work and rewarded in a way that they won’t be if they were pursuing knowledge on their own. If they fail a course, they may be held back and disallowed from graduation, as opposed to a self-starter who faces no consequences for failing to learn. Without the motivation that college provides, most people simply wouldn’t be pushed to learn in the same way.

Of course, just because this has been the way that things have worked in the past doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to be the way of the future.

Covid may in fact be responsible for accelerating the realization that colleges aren’t the only way to hold ourselves accountable. Instead, we can create our own structures that keep us motivated.

Enter: the micro-campus.

A micro-campus is a recently coined term that refers to a small community of people who are united by a commitment to personal growth in a shared environment.

Little co-living/co-working communities like School2.0 and LaunchHouse have begun cropping up all over the place, and they make perfect sense. Now that most things can be done remotely, why not live together with friends or colleagues who can keep us motivated and hold us accountable?

Rather than going through a traditional university, we can easily imagine a world where people periodically gather in micro-campuses around the world and work to enlighten and edify each other.

I myself am writing this from Vermont in a beautiful home surrounded by fall foliage with 11 other friends, some of whom are taking their college courses online and others who are working remotely. We all got Covid tested beforehand and we’re all pushing each other to pursue personal projects during nights and weekends. So far, it’s been incredibly motivating, and it’s so nice to be surrounded by people who hold me accountable and encourage me to learn, create, and grow. We’ve effectively formed our own little micro-campus where we read books together, cook together, make music together, hack together, hike together, and learn whatever we want together.

The best part of this model is that the learning never ends. Rather than cramming your education into 4 years, you can take 2 months here and there to self-organize and learn anything you desire over the course of your lifetime. In fact, as the rate of change increases for what is expected of a modern worker, it may no longer be possible to have one’s education end at age 21.

Do I think this is the way of the future? Absolutely. Decentralized, distributed communities where people can keep each other motivated and learn at their own pace sounds like a complete 1-up from the traditional college experience. Once you’re motivated enough to join such a community, the rest takes care of itself.

So while I believe that colleges are on their way out, I don’t think we should rush to dismantle the institution without replacing it with something that will maintain the incentive structures that colleges typically provide.

We may be living through a transition away from formal, accredited universities and towards a model that is distributed, remote, personalized, and lifelong. Only time will tell whether the micro-campus is here to stay, but I for one am excited by the change.

I’m approachable!