Back to School University


I liked my college experience. While I was at Ohio University, I spent four years working for the school’s independent daily student newspaper, The Post, met some great friends and benefitted from attending one of the country’s better journalism programs.

What I didn’t like were all those other classes I had to take—economics, anthropology, statistics and the like. Those classes got in the way of spending more time at The Post and more time with my friends. I didn’t value those classes. I thought they were dumb. And they were sort of dumb. I could spend minimal time studying for those classes and still get at least a B+. Those 101 and 102 classes took place in lecture halls the size of high school gymnasiums. I don’t remember any of those professors, and they don’t remember me. I couldn’t tell you anything I learned. Those classes were a means (grades) to an end (graduating and getting a job).

This is a shame. Economics, anthropology and statistics are all interesting fields taught by intelligent men and women. If I knew then what I know now, I would have taken more electives at a more challenging level and broadened my educational experience. I would have hounded my professors for their expertise. I would have cared. But I didn’t. And the reason I didn’t was because college is wasted on the young.

If I designed my own university—and if there are any billionaires reading this, call me—I would make one fundamental, giant change. This change attempts to address what economist Bryan Caplan calls the “signaling model of education,” which holds that “employers reward educational success because of what it shows (‘signals’) about the student.  Good students tend to be smart, hard-working, and conformist – three crucial traits for almost any job. When a student excels in school, then, employers correctly infer that he’s likely to be a good worker. What precisely did he study? What did he learn how to do? Mere details. As long as you were a good student, employers surmise that you’ll quickly learn what you need to know on the job.”

I would allow students to attend my “Back to School University” for two years following high school, upon the successful completion of which they would receive an undergraduate degree. Then after the age of 25 they would be allowed to return to complete their studies and receive another degree.

BSU would break the learning experience into two separate phases. Phase 1, after high school, would consist of classes pertaining to career. Two years is enough time to understand the basics of almost any profession. All Phase 1 classes would focus on preparing the undergrad for the modern workplace, either in a specific field, such as teaching, or in the general sense of being an efficient, problem-solving worker.

This, I think, would lead to better student performance. Excelling in classes would improve one’s job prospects, and the undergrad would be focused on that first job, because the clock would start ticking down 24 months when he or she stepped on campus.

Prepared for a career, the undergrad would enter the workforce at the end of two years around the age of 20. They would leave school carrying half the debt, and they would have a two-year jump on their peers in terms of wages and career opportunities. That’s an advantage I would have loved.

Phase 2, which the student can begin anytime from age 25 up, would allow undergrads the opportunity to receive a classic, well-rounded education. In Phase 2, there are no grades. There is only education for education’s sake—the chance to broaden one’s mind because one wants to, not because one has to in order to make a grade to get a job. The businessman could take acting classes and study sociology. The journalist could learn statistics and Japanese. The teacher could study psychiatry and poetry.

The biggest beneficiaries of Phase 2 would be the professors. They would teach an impassioned classroom. What greater gift can you give a teacher than a student who believes that to be educated is an end in itself?

Phase 2, it should also be added, will be incredibly fun for the students who would return to campus along with old friends. One also envisions many Phase-1-to-Phase-2 marriages happening along the way.

Their minds refreshed, and perhaps with a whole new perspective on their careers, Phase 2 students would return to work with a deeper understanding and appreciation of the world. It has been said–and I think it is true–that only through an informed citizenry can a democratic republic endure. Phase 2 grads would be a boon to democracy.

If Phase 2 students cannot part with family or career long enough to finish their studies on campus, they can take classes online over an extended timeline.

Back to School University looks and feels like a real college, with dorms and academic buildings and labs. It is year-round, with short summer and winter breaks, as students in Phase 1 will have much to learn quickly and students in Phase 2 will not want to part with their careers for two long. The school has no athletics teams, which will save the budget millions. It has very few administrators because Phase 2 students will be expected to act as mentors and advisors to Phase 1 students, which should keep everyone on campus busy and responsible. The professor will exist at the center of campus life, because the professor will offer what the student clearly wants, a job in Phase 1 and an education in Phase 2.

It could work.

It can’t be any worse than the mess we have now.

Joe Donatelli is the author of The Marching Band Refused to Yield: The True Story of the Time the Ohio University Alumni Band Fought the Miami of Ohio Football Team.