Earlier last week, LMU announced a 6% tuition raise. Many other schools, both Jesuit and not, have also recently announced tuition bumps for the 2008-2009 year. As expected, torrents of complaints through voiceless mediums like JuicyCampus and letters to the editor flow in every which direction.

The universities fire back citing inflation, suffering markets, and a few other things. They lay on top of all of these reasons the rhetoric, “We want your degree to mean something in the future.” And that’s where every university reminds the world that they will never be a “Georgetown” or a “Harvard.”

The greatest minds have never been defined by their university degrees. Recent general conventional wisdom tell me, “Your degree doesn’t mean as much as you think.” Maybe conventional wisdom for once might be right.

Innovation in Schools

The most successful people drop out. While each millionaire has moved past his or her university, the schools cling to former students. They offer alms in the form of “honorary degrees.”

The mindset fuels frustrations of students. Students that excel in curricular programs–and even some extracurriculars–find that their hard work means nothing. Sean Blanda, a senior at Temple University, is finding his journalism degree is getting him nowhere. But he’s well-equipped. He founded Collegev2 (the original lifehacking blog for college students) and knows WordPress MU inside and out. Neither of those things were encouraged by his journalism school. He points out that “two of the best journalism schools in the country (so I hear), Syracuse and Northwestern, have price tags that far exceed most starting salaries.”

Sean is graduating in a little more than a month and is officially freaking out. His degree gets him nothing. Journalists tell him, “GPA doesn’t mean anything.” They want news clips that he has written. From an outside perspective, they are really saying your schooling means nothing. It does mean something: a lifetime of debt.

Personal Experience

More and more every day, LMU becomes less of a school and more of a petri dish for me. I am a single bacterial cell, absorbing food (information) given to me and growing. I complete homework on time and do it well enough. My GPA–which doesn’t matter any more–is 3.6. Or something like that. I haven’t checked it in more than a year.

Thankfully, the LMU computer science program has encouraged me to play. My professors didn’t mind that I skipped a few classes to party at SXSW. The film program’s curriculum is such a joke that I could skip all of my classes and still come out of the class with an “A-level” knowledge.

While it’s coming with quite the price tag, choosing to do a five-year plan at LMU has been a surprisingly beneficial decision. HackCollege has been one of my main endeavors, and it’s exciting to think where it will be two years from now before I hand it off. The site and podcast have led to all of my job opportunities; my degrees have been mere supplements–not cornerstones–to my resume.

Pay to Play

Many people scrunch up their nose when I mention I’m on the five-year plan. Although it’s impossible to complete my degrees in 4 years, my class schedule is average (15 units). Maybe it’s because I have 5 years, but I feel comfortable being at a university from a business standpoint: There is no other time in my life where I can experiment with the “real world” without messing up my potential well-being. My place is paid for; I’ve got a meal plan.

College is a great time to start experimenting with ideas (or drugs if that’s your thang). In the wrong environment–which might be a majority of campuses– ideas of being “bigger” than a student are crushed. And not ideas will take off. HackCollege has had a little tiny smidgen of success. I have had dozens of other ideas that never really worked out. (Sorry for the ego.)

All of this leads into a final point, what if universities were more mental playgrounds? What if the university was a petri dish. Class is important no doubt, but maybe too important. Ideas that spiral out of control into success could be given credit. Just now are different organizations on campus beginning to cooperate at LMU. But I still can’t take more than one screenwriting class if I wanted to. If equipment is not constantly being used the rules are too strict.

Once different students start sharing ideas (or becoming aware of the other’s existence), then some really interesting and potentially world-changing stuff starts to happen. The computer science, film, and dance departments at LMU are coordinating on some crazy motion-sensor driven reactive dancing. It might not amount to much, but by LMU’s standards it’s the coolest thing to have happened. Has it really taken people this long to realize that strict registration rules among other things hurt the students but also the university itself?

Let’s make universities a place to think again, not to replicate.