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Khan Academy’s Sal Khan on the future of higher education and why it might include non-traditional methods

Sal Khan, the founder of online education platform Khan Academy, joined Yahoo Finance to discuss the future of online learning.

Video Transcript

SEANA SMITH: Let's turn to education, President Biden introducing the American Families Plan last week, much of that focusing on education. So let's talk about the potential impact of that. And for that, we want to bring in Sal Khan. He is the founder of Khan Academy.

And Sal, it's great to have you back here on Yahoo Finance. So going through President Biden's proposal here, $200 billion plan to establish universal preschool, about $109 billion to provide two years of free community college. What's your response to this plan? And how significantly do you think it could potentially level the playing field?

SAL KHAN: Yeah, those are big numbers. You know, sometimes when you talk about government, we're used to hearing things in the hundreds of billions. But when you just divide $200 billion by the number of preschoolers there are in America, you get numbers that are in the many, many thousands of dollars per student per year. And so that has the potential to make a really huge dent.

And we know there's a lot of evidence that that makes a huge difference. There's been bipartisan support in states like Florida that does have a universal pre-K, and they've seen it make a difference. And educators have always known that these gaps that kids start forming, they form before they even get to kindergarten. So I think that has a lot of potential.

On the community college front, once again, $100 billion-plus is a lot of dollars that can make a huge difference to help kids who would otherwise have had college debt, who otherwise might have not-- might have forgone going to college. So the implementation of how those dollars are used are going to be key, but there's a lot of optimism that it could make a big impact.

ADAM SHAPIRO: What is the future of higher education, do you think, going to look like relatively soon, because we're almost out of the pandemic? But when you talk about two years of community college for free, I mean, I'm still trying to grapple with why some people are paying $50,000-plus a year to get a degree. I mean, the return on investment just isn't there anymore, or is it?

SAL KHAN: Yeah, I think people are finally asking the right questions here. I mean, there's a lot that we have to look at from a first principals point of view. You know, this four-year experience, why is it always four years? Whether you want to become an engineer, whether you want to become an art historian, it's four years.

And also, a lot of the skills that make you employable, if you really learn well in high school, you are very employable. If you know your critical reasoning and your math well, if you know-- if you can write quite well, if you can communicate quite well, even graduating from high school, you're, in some ways, more employable, more empowered than someone who could have a college degree or even a more advanced degree. So it's a great step that community college could be free.

I think it's also interesting to blur the lines between K through 12 and college and community college. Why can't we get some of those skills earlier on in people's progression so that we can save them time, and money, and opportunity cost and save the system time, money, and opportunity cost? Because there's no reason that even in the two-year time frame that you can't get all the skills you need.

And some of what's going to be interesting is competency-based models. And we're already seeing a lot of tech companies, Google with their certification program, Amazon with some of the things they're doing to vet developers, creating new pathways that whether or not you went to college or even graduated from high school, if you can show that you have certain skills, you can get a better job than people who went to graduate school. And so I think there's going to be a breaking up and a first principals thinking about what really makes sense.

SEANA SMITH: Sal, do you think that's actually the case, though? Because we talk about so many of these companies offering those types of programs or certificate programs, yet they're still, for the most competitive jobs, looking for people who at least have a four-year bachelor's degree. So when do-- I guess, when we talk about the timing of this, when do you think that's actually going to start to change?

SAL KHAN: Yeah, I think we're in the very, very early stages of it. It's just starting to become pseudo mainstream. The Google certification program, I think, is going to be an interesting thing to watch that they've done in partnership with Coursera, where if you-- the first certifications are going to be in IT work, but they're going to have certifications in project management, UX design, things like data analytics.

And as you start seeing people go through it-- I suspect a lot of the early people going through it are actual college graduates who have not been satisfied with their career prospects with their current degree, so they're going to go back into these programs, which are rigorous programs. But then if they finally have a signal to get these very remunerative careers in Google, if it's good enough for Google, it's going to be good enough for a lot of other people. So I think in the time-- in the five-year time horizon, you're going to start seeing this as a mainstream pathway for a lot of folks.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Well, people seem to forget, too, that-- I mean, City College in New York was free originally. My brother's father-in-law went there and then wound up going to Yale Law School. So this prejudice against community colleges, it seems it's time to break that, and it seems like the Google steps might do that. Do you think they will?

SAL KHAN: Yeah, you know, what's powerful about community colleges is they're a little less religious about their space in the ecosystem. Community colleges tend to do whatever it takes to support students. So I imagine community colleges creating programs for some of these external certification programs. They're also create programs as a pipeline into the four-year system.

Out here in California, going to a community college is actually a great way to go to the UC system. If you go for two years at a community college and you get a high GPA, you're pretty much guaranteed admission to a fairly selective UC. And so we see a lot of students choosing that path. It's cheaper. They can stay close from home. And they maybe are more likely to even get to the UC. So I think community college system is really powerful that way, because it has so much flexibility.

SEANA SMITH: Sal, when you take a look at the future of the Khan Academy, as you saw usage skyrocket here during the pandemic, when you look ahead to next year's school year with more students back in the classroom, what do you think that usage is going to look like?

SAL KHAN: Yeah, I think it's going to be-- you know, the pandemic saw a spike. And then I think it's going to normalize a bit, but it's going to normalize at a new normal, because there's going to be the digital divide people are taking more seriously than ever, so we're going to have, hopefully, more devices and access at home than people have ever had. Teachers are more comfortable with technology. Families are more comfortable with technology. People are looking for ways to fill in gaps.

On top of that, we launched an effort called schoolhouse.world, where people can get free tutoring above and beyond the videos, and the exercises, and the tools that you get at Khan Academy. And so I think these things that were done in response to the pandemic are going to have long-lasting implications, where people are going to get as many supports as they need for free above and beyond whatever they get from their school.

ADAM SHAPIRO: For free, and we know that there's the build out, you know, in urban areas-- or rather, suburban areas for broadband. But with 5G technology, it seems all of this becomes much more accessible, and you won't have to pay, you know, Fios or Comcast or whomever for the internet connection, they'll do it through your mobile phone.

SAL KHAN: Yeah, I'm excited about, you know, whether it's 5G or low Earth orbiting satellites and Starlink and whatever else, I do think, once again, in this five-year time horizon that we're going to be able to blanket more of the Earth, and especially the country with the level of internet access at a low cost that's going to allow everyone to tap in to the internet and by-- through the internet, their potential.

SEANA SMITH: Sal Khan, always great to have you here at Yahoo Finance, founder of the Khan Academy. We look forward to having you back here again in the future.