Thingish Things

Yale at 1/8th the Price?

Written By: William F. B. O'Reilly - Nov• 26•11

The more one thinks about the price of college these days – I’ve been hanging out with other panicked parents this Thanksgiving weekend – the more it becomes clear that there is something seriously out of whack with the cost of higher education.  The whole system, one way or another, is bound to collapse, just like the real estate market was – and did.

For students entering universities in 2012, the cost of a leading private four-year undergraduate degree will be about $220,000. The estimated expense of that degree for my five-year-old is $550,000.  Children born five years from now can expect to pay more than $1 million for a B.A. That makes sense when you consider that the price of college, as a rule of thumb, grows at approximately twice the rate of inflation.  It has for years. The freight is even heavier for some parents when you consider than only half of college students today receive degrees in four years.

To use an overworked adjective, these price hikes are unsustainable in a stellar economy.  In this one, they are a slow motion train wreck. But, assuming the bubble pops, how will it happen? Will it implode from the weight of wide scale student loan defaults, or will millions of American youngsters simply abandon the idea of going to college and head directly into the workforce, as some are suggesting?

Families already are adopting inventive strategies to help cope with modern-day college costs. Students are attending low-priced community colleges for one or two years with the hopes of transferring to big-name private or public schools for their degrees.  Others are snubbing private schools altogether and choosing quality state schools instead, so much so that seats in those schools are growing scarce even as public dollars dry up.

All of these things will eventually put pressure on the private college market.  But one can see another phenomenon occurring in the not-so-distant future, where the college “degree” itself — except in careers like medicine and the law where advanced degrees are required – is effectively deemed nonessential. 

This is purely subjective and anecdotal, but when I sit across the desk from a young job applicant, the first thing I look for in his resume is where he went to school.  I don’t think I’m alone in doing that. If it’s Yale or Princeton or Stanford, I really don’t look any farther. I pretend to, but I don’t. If the school is several academic rungs down from those schools, I dig a little deeper to find something else worth liking.  

One thing I rarely look for anymore, though, is the applicant’s graduation date, other than to determine his approximate age.  I am far more interested in knowing what college he could get into than whether he finished there. That may be because I walked away from school early, but I don’t think so. I think it’s because the traditional four-year-college experience is slowly but surely coming apart at the seams, in part because money-hungry universities now encourage students to “take their time” in getting a degree; in part because college degrees are so ubiquitous that they no longer impress, and in part because so many students are leaving schools early because of their cost.  In short, modern-day education is going the way of the cobbled together modern-day family — the stigma of not finishing school, like the stigma of the non-traditional family, is evaporating. That trend can only continue given the circumstances.  

If one has no intention of going to graduate school, what is the real-world difference of attending Harvard for three years and attending for four and receiving the piece of paper?  Sure, we can all agree that four years of college is better than three. But how much difference will that extra year really make in the job market going forward? I would argue not that much. So, I’m sure, would Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, et al. 

Be honest, if a two- or three-year MIT attendee with a snappy excuse for leaving school early sat across from you in an interview, would you be more or less likely to hire him or the applicant holding a B.S. from a middle-of-the-road school?  I’d take the MIT student.  Maybe that would be wrong.  But I would. 

Another thing to support this notion:  Education really has become a lifelong pursuit.  In the days of our Founding Fathers, it was theoretically possible for the best educated Americans to have read all of the significant works ever published up to that point in time – from Aristotle to John Locke. A college degree was proof that its bearer was steeped in the body of knowledge and wisdom contained therein.  

A degree today suggests nothing of the sort. First of all, it would be preposterous  to expect a college student today to read all of the great works of history. Millions upon millions of books have been published since our nation was founded. As a result, few college  kids every crack Montesquieu or Locke anymore. If a question arises about either, one can simply Google it from an Iphone. That’s where the body of knowledge lies today — online not atop mind. 

So if a four-year college degree does not represent a specific body of knowledge, what does it suggest other than the age of its holder and the assumption that he learned something from his B.A. in “communications” or “business.” It suggests, to me anyway, as a bottom line, nothing more than where he could get into school.  And if that school is good enough — if it was tough enough to get into — it tells me everything I need to know about the prospect’s career potential. The four years really doesn’t matter at all.  Heck, a semester or two would do.  That’s the cold heart truth as I see it. Shoot for the best school you can get into and then bail out. Just never forget how to Google. 

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One Comment

  1. Rachel says:

    This article came out over the summer: The Master’s as the New Bachelor’s:

    The cost of a bachelor’s degree today is outrageous and causes so many people to go into debt that they can’t pay back, given that for most the degree isn’t going to equate into a higher paying job if they don’t get a graduate degree. And don’t get me started about whether schools (at any level) are even real sites of education anymore.

    And I’m sure you’re gonna hate this, but I’m linking to Stanley Aronowitz’s “Against Schooling” article, in which he makes some good points about how the rise of higher education post-World War II does not translate into social mobility, etc: “Mass higher education is, to a great extent, a holding pen by effectively masking unemployment and underemployment, which may account for its rapid expansion over the last thirty five years of chronic economic stagnation, deindustrialization and the proliferation of part-time and temporary jobs, largely in the low-paid service sectors. Consequently working-class students are able, even encouraged, to enter universities and colleges at the bottom of the academic hierarchy — community colleges but also public four year colleges — thus fulfilling the formal pledge of equal opportunity for class mobility even as most of these institutions suppress its content.”

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