By Temitayo Osinubi
I guess you could say I love Dr. Boyce Watkins in much the same way my Libertarian friends love Rush Limbaugh. And while I cringe mentioning those two in the same breath, with regard to a fiercely loyal following who veraciously devour their sometimes incendiary commentary, the two are similar.
I very rarely disagree with him on social issues concerning the black community. However something I vehemently disagree with him on is his stance on online self-taught education. Dr. Watkins, a prominent finance professor by trade, is on record as saying you can get an excellent education online for a fraction of what a University costs, often times for free.
While this stance isn’t incorrect, it is incomplete. Let’s start with YouTube, which Dr. Watkins is very prolific on and a go-to learning source for many.
Fun Fact: at the July 2015 VidCon YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki announced YouTube users upload more than 400 hours of video to the site every minute.
Four hundred hours is 16.67 days. So as of this writing for every minute the passes two and 1/3 weeks worth of video is uploaded to YouTube… the vast majority of which is garbage, cat videos, fight videos etc. And if those numbers weren’t big enough for you, we’re expected to hit 500 hours per minute in 2016, which is 20.83 days or just shy of three whole weeks.
That’s just video on one video platform. Once you count in other large video platforms like Daily Motion and Vimeo, not to mention articles, blogs, images, infographics, apps, social media etc. there’s literally YEARS worth of content (data) being produced every hour. Again, the vast majority of which is garbage.
Knowing this, I just can’t get behind this notion of setting people loose against an almost unfathomably large amount of data (many of whom aren’t sophisticated enough to avoid online predators) armed with nothing more than a search engine and their ability to discern Internet snake oil when they see it. While I do understand how Dr. Watkins may have come to this conclusion, it is both my personal and professional opinion that this is a profoundly irresponsible position to take.
I would argue this point of view is yet another die-hard holdover from the late 90’s/early 2000’s when the Internet was a much smaller place with far less moving parts. But going into 2016, with data proliferating by magnitudes of order it just isn’t reasonable to expect people to stitch together a quality education with nothing more than a search engine and their common sense. I go into further detail about the benefits of structured education in this article.
Putting the daunting task of avoiding predatory B.S. online aside, being self-taught is a reactive process by nature. Meaning ‘I need to be able to do this’ so I go off and I learn this; or ‘I need to be able to do that’ so I go and I learn that.
The problem with this reactive mode of learning is the old saying “you can’t see the forest because of the trees”. Because you’re reacting instead of following a plan, often times you’re waist-deep in the process before you figure out you need to pivot or make an adjustment, which you may or may not be able to do now since you’re so deep into the process by that point.
The result is that you end up with this hodge-podge mishmash of a skillset, whereas if you would’ve taken the time to consult someone who knows the terrain you could’ve saved yourself a lot of time, heart ache and often times money. But like most things, I think money is the root of this argument.
Student loan debt can ruin you financially. There’s no question about that. Many would and have argued that it too is profoundly irresponsible and predatory to saddle 17 and 18-year-olds with debt it often takes their entire working lives to pay back. As a high school senior you still have to raise your hand and ask permission to go to the bathroom. As a society we’re not raising adults we’re raising children. They’re not emotionally ready nor posses the maturity that the student loan process requires. As a finance professor no one understands the devastating effects student loans can have better than Dr. Watkins.
So from that perspective I both understand and agree with Dr. Watkin’s that online self-study can be far cheaper than student loans. However, I maintain it’s unreasonable to expect the uninitiated to be able to find low cost, high quality education in an ever expanding Internet this damn big! More often than not that’s just asking too much.
Luckily, we do live in the Information Age where options are plentiful. An option I suggest to students is paid scholarship services. From as low as $20/mo up to $500 a year you can pay a professional to sift through the mountains of data to help you both find and apply for the right scholarship(s). While not free, it’s far better to pay a tiny amount up front than incur a colossal debt you may die with.
You can also find yourself a good mentor; the value of which I outline in my article Mike King of iPullRank.com is my Stuart Scott. While not as sure of a bet as paying someone for their services, leveraging your personal and professional network is a tried and true path to career success. One word of caution, you typically can’t expect the same level of care from someone mentoring you out of the goodness of their heart as you can a paid instructor. You’ll want to be careful not to strain those mentor-mentee relationships, as you may need them later on in your career.
So this whole either or discussion between online self-study and structured education isn’t a black or white issue, it’s a decision making process. You have to treat it like a triage and have all of the parts of the equation. It’s not either teach yourself or go to College. Both of views are incomplete and how we go from a debate to a debacle.
It’s teach yourself in such a way where you have structured mentorship and internship so you can see how it works from the inside. Alternatively, go to a traditional College with the ability not to saddle yourself down with a devastating amount of debt. I hope this post brought some much-needed context to the discussion. You can teach yourself and have that structure still. Just as you can go to a University setting, but you have to educate yourself emotionally and fiscally before you go down that path.