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Our (Work) Education Crisis: Send In the MOOCs

Can free online education save the American worker?
University of North Texas assistant professors Greg Jones and Scott Warren have published a study on the benefits of using 3-D environments to enhance Web-only and blended courses in Denton, Texas
University of North Texas assistant professors Greg Jones and Scott Warren have published a study on the benefits of using 3-D environments to enhance Web-only and blended courses in Denton, TexasPhotograph by Sharon M. Steinman/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT via Getty Images

In the early 1990s, the late labor economist Jacob Mincer gathered a group of journalists and scholars into a seminar room at Columbia University. Mincer wanted to talk about the role education played in widening income inequality. Among the participants was Fischer Black, a Goldman Sachs partner, legendary quant, and co-creator of the famed Black-Sholes option pricing model. The conversation revolved around what accounted for the widening earnings gap between workers with only a high school degree and college graduates. Black said nothing for a long time. Suddenly, he remarked, “Why are we talking about school so much? What you learn on the job is nine to 11 times what you learn at school. I don’t know the exact number, but that seems a reasonable estimate.”

The conversation stopped. Everyone nodded in agreement. Mincer quickly returned the discussion to the relationship between education levels and inequality. On reflection, the meeting would have been far more productive using Black’s insight as a launching point for a new discussion. People do learn a lot on the job: Think back on how much you’ve learned at work over the years, compared to college or even getting an MBA.