High Cost of Higher Education

You could get a good liberal arts education w/o going to university. There are so many options besides the obvious one of just reading. I travel a lot and I make a special effort to study subjects related to the places I go, but you can learn a lot w/o leaving home. I personally like “The Great Courses” series, but you can get lots of things free on Internet. I am wondering why university education costs so much.

I understand the high price of courses that require expensive infrastructure, such as sciences, but lots of subjects don't have these requirements. I think the main reason why universities charge so much is because they can. And many times kids and parents are not paying for knowledge; they are paying for credentials. That is why some recently graduated students are so angry. They think that they paid for a ticket to a high paying job, but they still can't get into the club.

We all talk about the knowledge revolution, but have yet to come to grips with what that means. Among other things, it has created a great democratization of information. A generation ago, education from Harvard was much better than that from some no-name university. Harvard had the advantage of a great library and well-trained professors. Today everybody has access to great libraries and even the most remote universities have PhDs teaching. Yet demand for Harvard and similar universities have continued to grow. This has to do more with credentials than with quality of education.

Top universities stay on top not by teaching well but by providing a great filter. If you are able to take in the best students, you will be successful. The smart, hardworking kids will be successful. If your institution can attract them, you will be successful too, no matter if your value added is big or small. When firms recruit on campuses, they are essentially relying on the filtering process. So you need the degree from the best university you can get not to learn but to prove you are worthy.

(BTW - I am a graduate of big state universities of Wisconsin and Minnesota, but a few years ago I had the opportunity to attend classes at Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy and Harvard Kennedy School. My experience was that the best students at Wisconsin were the equals of the best students at Harvard. The difference was that Harvard didn't let in as many relatively dumb kids, so an employer could count on consistent quality.)

Much depends on how much a student studies and how smart he is in general. But this is hard to measure. We have progressively abandoned tests related to employment and grades in school have become nearly meaningless. It gets even worse as former employers fearing lawsuits increasingly will not pass on honest appraisals.

So our universities have established a type of monopoly. Their product could be, and is, duplicated in other cheaper ways, but their hold is maintained by de-facto application of rules that inhibit employers from making accurate appraisals of real factors, so they rely on proxies.

I am in favor of what I call the Gold's Gym test. You go in and ask the guy if he can lift the weight. The test is whether or not he can, not how much time he spends at the gym.

Another good thing about the "Great Courses" is that they dispense with most of the PC crap that has larded into courses at many universities. They also don't have all that bureaucratic overhead. Trouble is, no matter how smart you get listening to them, you don't get any "smart papers" to prove it.


Posted by Christine & John at December 2, 2011 9:46 PM
Comment #332657


I think you make a great point. A degree from any college does not by default mean that someone is smart and/or capable, nor is a college education the only way for one to be educated. I did not go to college, but instead entered the workforce immediately after high school (actually before). Yet, at the risk of sounding arrogant, I’m a pretty smart guy and have more education than most. The difference is that I have educated myself.

I worked for a large wholesaler for about 15 years, during which time I interviewed dozens, if not hundreds of candidates for various positions. Speaking from my own experience and nothing else, I would have to say that most of the college grads I interviewed were less smart and less capable than those who did not have a formal education, but had just worked hard to improve themselves. The best hiring decisions I made were the people that did not have a degree. It always seemed that the people with degrees had some sense of entitlement, as if their fancy piece of paper somehow made them superior to others and justified them skipping over the “less desirable” positions and going straight into management.

Your “Gold’s Gym” test is perfect. It’s not about credentials, it’s about capabilities.

Posted by: Kevin Nye at December 3, 2011 1:14 PM
Comment #332671

Universities are more expensive simply because of marketing.
Yes technological advances have made things more expensive (must have the latest and greatest gadgets), but Universities have turned toward diversity as a way of increasing revenue.

By diversity i mean, portfolio diversity, not ethic diversity. Universities seek out what the market is pursuing and goes after the highest return on their dollars.

This generation of college attendees are far more in-tune with the luxury than doing without. Gone are the days where universities have the cinder-bock dorm rooms adorned with bunk beds and a communal shower. What sells now are four bedroom suits with two private baths and a shared living space and eat-in kitchen.

Gone are the nights at the library hoping that your reference material wasn’t already checked out. Replaced with a constant, 24/7 access to Internet-related content (yes, we know that you might not be able to cite the reference but it gets you off to a good start).

Large cafeterias, with metal picnic tables are now replaced with Starbucks.


One of the reasons could be that the people paying for these luxuries are the very same parents that made sure that Johnny and Janie received a medal for showing up. The same parents that complained to the coach for not playing their child more.

Face it; we’ve coddled the kids so much that we the students expect the parents to figure it out for them.

Posted by: john trevisani at December 4, 2011 12:15 AM
Comment #332678

I had a friend who worked manufacturing and he was mad that he couldn’t advance into a position at the company that he felt he was more than qualified for but he did not have a college degree. On one side that seems unfair but from a standpoint of measuring knowledge it makes sense.

The problem with self-education is there’s no way to measure it. In the job market companies don’t have time to see if every candidate can lift the weight, to follow your analogy. But a 4 year degree says something about completion and showing up. It doesn’t guarantee you’re the most qualified candidate in the pool but it does add a certain known quality that sets you clearly apart from others.

The sad thing is education costs are skyrocketing. By the time my kids go to college they’ll be paying 4 times what I paid. If their kids go to college they’ll pay 4 times what I paid. What cost me about $5000 a year at a state school will cost my children $25,000 a year and their children $100,000 if trends continue. It’s no wonder fewer people are going to college at a time when a 4 year degree is becoming a default for most good paying jobs.

Posted by: Adam Ducker at December 4, 2011 3:20 AM
Comment #332684

I paid for my kids education, actually still paying for two of them. I am very proud that We could do this. Chrissy & I saved and sacrificed for more than twenty-five years to make this possible. We were “lucky” that we thought ahead and were able to maintain financial discipline over such a long time. As a result, neither we nor the kids have debt associated with college education. But being responsible is getting harder every year.

I think that much of the problem with higher education has to do with third-party payers. In our case, we paid for the kids & I was sometimes annoyed with them for their profligacy. They sometimes, IMO, didn’t study enough and I had to pay twice for classes that they dropped and had to take again. This dropping, BTW, has become an accepted practice in this generation. It improves their grades and makes their lives easier.

It is bad enough with the parents are third-payers. At least they can exert some control over their prodigal children. Although schools make that more and more difficult. They don’t call parents when kids are messing up, as they used to. There is too much “privacy”. But it is even worse with all the government sponsored payment schemes. The needs-based programs often come with no strings attached.

The problem with young people is that they just don’t know enough to make good decisions. That is why they are still going to school. We treat them as adults in terms of rights but we treat them like children in terms of responsibilities.

But back to expenses - because many of the people paying are not those enjoying the benefits there is less discipline applied to spending. Since much of the money comes from foundations or government, which apply impersonal regulations that tend to pay for services rendered rather than results. Universities have incentives to lard on services, since they get paid for them even if they are ineffective.

We have also have the problem of universities being given, and often gladly embracing, the role of changing society. In addition to teaching math, science, literature and history, they have expanded into all sorts of social programs that are unrelated to learning.

Maybe universities should teach the subjects and let the students make up their minds. But my kids had various mandatory sessions about sensitivity to various PC things that can only be described as “reeducation”. Whether or not you agree with the goals, all these things cost time and money that either takes the place of subject education or piled deeper on top.

IMO - we will soon have a revolution in education. Universities have been insulated from many of the forces that have affected other institutions. Many firms are bypassing universities to do their own training.

I saw this happen with English 101 at UW in the 1970s. It became infested by leftists and even Marxists some of whom stopped teaching composition and started to teach Mao. (No joke. The “Thoughts of Chairman Mao” was included on some reading lists) The course became irrelevant, so after a while others had to pick up the real teaching. Lots of kids learned lefty crap but still couldn’t construct a sentence. A similar thing happened to sociology. Many of the useful aspects have been taken over by management departments or independent think tanks.

Universities fill an essential niche with lots of branches. These needs have to be filled, but it may not be necessary for the universities to be the ones to fill them.

Posted by: C&J at December 4, 2011 10:48 AM
Comment #332709

What do university’s provide?

The library, for one thing, including specialized publication. Structure for learning equipment, for developing skills with different tools. Face to face interaction with those teaching you. A set of standards for determining the quality of how well you learned.

In general, we’re talking the kind of research for research’s sake, and for commercial application that helps promote the progress of science and technology.

We can pretend that you can learn everything you need to know from a video, but can you ask that professor a question? You can do continuing education, but you will lack for the structure that might keep you focused.

As for calling it a monopoly? There are many competing institutions within the industry as whole, charging different prices and with different styles of education. I think you’re engaging in your common rhetorical gambit of calling something you don’t like a monopoly, and suggesting an alternative, no matter how weak, as the satisfactory replacement for the degree.

The demand is not simply for information. The demand is for information plus the focused, equipped environment necessary for efficient learning.

Posted by: Stephen Daugherty at December 5, 2011 11:42 AM
Comment #332754


I love universities. That is why I hung around in them so long. The problem is that mismanagement is threatening their relevance. Think of sociology. It used to be a discipline that was useful to society. Today good sociologists work at think tanks or in firms.

A similar thing has happened to my beloved discipline of history. The best historians are outside or marginal to academia.

Posted by: C&J at December 6, 2011 5:16 PM
Comment #411512

High Cost of high Education in almost every country but some university have scholarship for the deserving students. In this way those students almost complete their education free of cost. I think government try to manage the fee of higher Education. So, that everyon able to afford it.

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