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Communications of the ACM


What College Could Be Like

stairs of college building

Imagining an optimized education model.

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Michael Toomim

Yes! I believe in this so much! Thanks Salman, for putting great words and a youtube video to the philosophy so that the idea can spread!


This article, like may others about MOOCs, seems to focus on the top end: the example student has a tour round Microsoft, Google and Apple, and seems to be trusted to do important work for all of them. Well, a student as able as that is likely to do well whatever the system. What will it do for the students in the middle: not very confident, not very engaged, and a bit distrustful of authority figures?

John Ebert

I am a graduate of the University of Cincinnati. UC is one of the pioneers in co-op education - they've been doing it for over 100 years. I graduated with about 24 months of work experience at 3 different organizations. One was a small local firm, one was a government agency in Germany (arranged in conjunction with the university's German department) and one was with one of the large, leading companies at the time. Most of what I did was not cutting edge technology, but then I don't think much of what I have done since graduation has been leading edge either. All my classmates worked co-op jobs, too, and many of us were hired after graduation by companies where we had co-op'ed. Based on my experience, I believe that co-op eduction is beneficial to average students working at average companies, too. One of the challenges is that the availablity of co-op jobs can depend on how the economy is doing. It is harder for companies to justify bringing in students when they are laying off their full time employees. The economic slowdown over the last few years had made it harder to find positions for all the students.


I'm a current engineering student at the University of Waterloo, and co-op is absolutely the best part about the program. I had 2 different job offers waiting for me to graduate by the time I finished my 2nd year of study. The hands on industry experience allows us to see the vast differences between the classroom and the real world. Whether you're into software or hardware, there's plenty of jobs that offer good experience. Throughout 6 work terms, we're encouraged to mix up the types of jobs and working environments that we experience. Before we graduate, we've seen how differently big companies run from small ones, and we've seen how different types of engineers all collaborate to create a final product. I'm not sure why more Universities haven't already adopted this model.


Go Waterloo :)

Daniel Lemire

The University of Waterloo is objectively one of the best schools, but the mere existence of a co-op program does not explain, by itself, its excellence. Indeed, the majority of Canadian universities have co-op programs. One should probably mention the fact that it is has a strong entrepreneurial culture.

CACM Administrator

The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor in the April 2013 CACM (
--CACM Administrator

In his Viewpoint "What College Could Be Like" (Jan. 2013), Salman Khan wrote how the core value proposition of U.S. higher education is increasingly untenable, as reflected in the rising costs of tuition and in graduate unemployment. In response, he envisioned a new kind of university built around the industry co-op. However, it would do little to address the challenges facing U.S. higher education today. Rather, we should see it as another round in the ongoing attempt by market-based education reformers to de-socialize U.S. higher education.

The recession is the dominant cause of both rising tuition and graduate unemployment today. Tuition has increased to help offset lost revenue from state funding and private endowments, not increased costs.2 Along with the long-term issue of rising tuition,1 the growing cost of student services, facilities, and operations have outstripped the growth in the cost of instruction. Khan's proposal—focused on reducing the cost of instruction through online lectures—would do little to stop or even slow this trend.

Perhaps Khan's hypothetical university could generate extra revenue through student co-ops. In this respect, his focus on computer science hides a larger issue: CS graduates are in high demand, while the opposite holds for nearly every other discipline. Outside computing, more co-ops (if possible) would create more undercompensated intern positions, not full-time positions.

But as academics and intellectuals, as well as citizens, we should be more concerned over how Khan's proposal would reduce education to job training. Where do the ideas of Plato's Republic, Karl Marx's Capital, or Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan fit into a "co-op education"? Or, less ambitious, where does a basic understanding of the U.S. Constitution and system of governance fit? Should we assume these subjects, along with "art and literature," would be deferred to "nights and weekends" as elective pursuits? Such a proposal fails to treat them as having merit equal to technical skills or as an integral part of a broader humanistic education.

Khan claimed students view college primarily as a means to a job (his core value proposition), yet enrollment in co-ops (available for credit in nearly every U.S. engineering school) remains modest. Rather than free students to pursue co-ops, Khan's proposal would shackle them to the demands of a nine-to-five job, restricting their freedom elsewhere.

Carved in Bedford Limestone on the main building of my alma mater, the University of Texas at Austin, are the words: "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." Perhaps Khan would substitute "Get a job."

Gilbert Bernstein
Stanford, CA

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