On Our Radar - Alternative Options to Higher Education   

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On Our Radar features HEQCO staff and guest bloggers offering their unique perspectives on trends, new ideas, and hot-button issues in higher education. The opinions are those of the authors.
 
 
A recent Toronto Star article detailed the extraordinary story of the 18-year old Mississauga high school graduate Yoonseo Kang and his decision to accept a prestigious Thiel Fellowship valued at USD$100,000 in lieu of attending postsecondary education for at least two years. Kang is one of two 2012 Canadian recipients. The other, 19-year old Christopher Olah, intends to allocate his grant to the development of educational aids, rudimentary scientific equipment and other tools through the use of 3D printers.

The Thiel Fellowship created by PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, provides a handful of students under the age of 20 with a $100,000 grant to “skip college and focus on their work, their research, and their self-education.” All recipients are provided with mentors with field-related expertise aligned to the student’s interests. These mentors also conduct monthly meetings in order to assess the student’s progress and future directions of their project. Ideal candidates for this fellowship are those who “who dream big and have clear plans, who take risks and learn from mistakes, who think long-term and like to tinker.” Simply put, their ideas are “too big to wait.”

Kang’s decision to accept the Thiel Fellowship was no simple task. Despite significant parental pressures, he decided to temporarily forgo his studies at the University of Toronto, where he was planning to specialize in computer science, to pursue volunteer work with the Open Source Ecology Project in Maysville, Missouri. This project, originally created by the American physicist Marcin Jakubowski, encourages individuals to build more affordable alternatives to existing agricultural and industrial machines through the use of free, online guides. 

Although the article details Kang’s tough decision and struggles, it also reflects the greater need for higher education institutions to accommodate the ever-increasing demands and nature of the 21st century student. These students are characterized as being more innovative, more multidisciplinary, more tech-savvy, more travelled and more educated than ever. Yet, skill misalignment in the labour force, high student debt, increasing tuition costs and the proliferation of unpaid internships are only some of the many reasons why young adults are seriously reconsidering whether higher education, in its current shape and form, is appropriate for them.

This tension between the intrinsic qualities of the 21st century student and the current fears surrounding the pursuit of higher education may help explain the recent rise of more alternative solutions to the traditional college and university structure. Solutions range from free, online courseware, such as MITx, to grants, such as the Thiel Fellowship. Another example, [E]nstitute, is a two-year apprenticeship program designed to enhance and develop students’ entrepreneurial skills by creating a work-integrated learning environment. In other words, these programs strive to more closely simulate a “learning by doing” environment that provides today’s students with a more optimal and conducive work and study setting necessary for the 21st century. Only time will tell how the rise of these alternative solutions will impact the current postsecondary educational landscape in the United States and Canada.
 
 
-Lauren Hudak, Research Analyst
 
 

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