I am not a fan of public education, which just seems to institutionalize mediocrity. Young men and women have awesome natural energy that can and should be funneled into extra-ordinary learning. As others have noted, children are learning machines by default, and we are doing just about everything we can to extinguish their inherent willingness to engage in the world of their fathers and mothers and heroes and mentors. To learn, children must want to become a functional contributing adult, and public education has successfully managed to turn coming-of-age into a dull and thankless chore. I think there is a great need for a free market in education. It seems to me that undergraduate education, and perhaps even high school education, is best left decentralized. David Ricardo theorized that free trade allows for greater overall cost-efficiency and quality of goods because –to take a minor example -- some places are more fit for growing flour and other places are more fit for making bagels (for example). Similarly, why require that each university is a jack-of-all-trades, master of none, offering courses they may not be well-equipped to offer.
Why not change the educational paradigm and tear down the institutional boundaries that hold students as captive wards. Under the new paradigm universities, rather than holding students (wards) captive on campus for four years, will serve as home to professional mentors and “accreditors” who network with educational programs all around the world to give each student a personalized, high-quality education. Universities will continue to serve as home to scholar/teachers who conduct research and actively advance their fields. But students at each home university will travel all around the country, around the world even, taking classes or participating in apprenticeships that are first vetted by the university. All the while, the professional mentors and accreditors at the student’s home university will work to ensure that they are granting credits for valid programs- even to the point of traveling around to see these programs in action much like a professional scout in major league baseball. Each course or apprenticeship will have a price tag of course, but home universities will work with their partner organizations to facilitate payments and make sure that they are getting their money’s worth. Scholarships in this framework will consist of special accounts set up at the student’s home university, which they and their mentors must determine how to spend.
Highly-specialized institutions will spring up – institutions that are superb at meeting their stated educational mission, and do so at great value. For instance: institutions that specialize in introductory biology laboratories, to which students are shipped from all over the country (and even all around the world) for a semester or so of top-notch biological laboratory experience. Or, students might spend a year at a top-notch language institution in which they are immersed in language and culture for a year (such programs already exist and tend to be very effective). And although this paradigm seems most suited to vocational training and specialized coursework, I think it could even benefit students interested in a solid liberal-arts education. Students could choose to remain at a single institution for four years if they and their mentors agreed, but they may also choose to spend "a la carte" semesters studying civil war history in Virginia, another studying philosophy at a mountain retreat in Colorado. Under this paradigm, motivated college students will become more immediately immersed in the world, and college itself will be more supple and individualized. College will be about growing up and learning to thrive as an adult.
One problem I can see with this new educational paradigm would be that students would constantly be applying for programs, sending resumes out, etc. In fact, I think the paradigm that I am describing resembles the “study abroad” paradigm of many universities. Top schools are more likely to send their students to the top study abroad programs all around the country, but all students have a shot, and may be able to convince their academic institution to grant credit for a particular program of interest. The home university is involved in easing the process, vetting acceptable study abroad programs, ensuring that a certain number of students from the home university are accepted into that program. The home university advocates for their students, and that is one of the great reasons to wish to attend a renowned university as a home university. In a way, this new paradigm amounts to a permanent study abroad program. Students should not be forced to stay within the same institutional walls for four years. That is a fate best left to prisoners, not the bright minds and skilled hands of the future.