In an age rife with “disruptions” to the higher education system, one man claims to have employed an appealingly simple one: Just show up on campus, and never actually enroll.
Joe Pinsker at The Atlantic tells the story of Guillaume Dumas, a 28-year-old man who purports to have attended classes at Yale, Stanford, Brown, and McGill, among other universities, all without enrolling or paying tuition. Mr. Pinsker seems to allow for the possibility that Mr. Dumas is exaggerating, writing only that “as I went about confirming what he told me — talking to students he’d met, asking for pictures of him on campus — I didn’t find anything to disprove what he was saying.”
Still, his (alleged) project is intriguing. While Mr. Pinsker notes that most people attend college to get a diploma, Mr. Dumas counters: “I think more than anything it’s meeting people. It’s contacts. It’s social capital.”
Mr. Dumas certainly could have taken classes without his college tour. A number of companies now offer the opportunity to learn coding skills without ever attending a university — one program explicitly encourages young women to choose the former over the latter. And, of course, many top-tier schools now offer some of their courses online, to the chagrin of some traditionalists.
What they don’t offer online, at least so far, is the experience Mr. Dumas emphasizes: that of hanging out with other young people who got into top schools, and who thus have social (and, in some cases, actual) capital to offer.
As technology changes higher education, this experience may become less important. Kevin Carey, author of the recently-released “The End of College,”told N.P.R. that “whereas historically you went to college in a specific place and only studied with the other people who could afford to go [to] that place, in the future we’re going to study with people all over the world, interconnected over global learning networks and in organizations that in some cases aren’t colleges as we know them today, but rather 21st-century learning organizations that take advantage of all of the educational tools that are rapidly becoming available to offer great college experiences for much less money.”
It’s possible that such learning organizations will allow students to create their own communities, ones with much lower financial barriers to entry, and that over time, those communities will reduce the influence of the elite-university network. Some schools have also actively sought to broaden their student bodies beyond the very wealthy.
But they haven’t always succeeded. In the Yale Alumni Magazine last year, David Zax wrote that 69 percent of Yale’s class of 2017 came from families making more than $120,000 a year. And even lower-income students who are admitted aren’t necessarily welcomed into social groups on campus, as Eleanor Barkhorn at The Atlantic has noted.
Mr. Dumas may have found a roundabout way to access the social capital an elite education provides. Others, however, remain shut out.