Archive for the ‘College tuition’ Category
Wherever I go in California these days I meet young people who either can’t afford to attend college, so they don’t, or else are going to college and taking out huge student loans. (I don’t know which group I feel more sorry for, though I think the first group are smarter.)
The thing is, none of this is necessary. The problem, of course, is the unrealistic and outrageously high tuitions at colleges and universities today. And while I’m scarcely a knee-jerk ‘free market solves all’ libertarian, in this case I think the principle applies. The reason tuitions are so high is because we have a closed system, a monopoly of players in collusion who control higher education. The racket works like this:
- Universities convince people that they need a diploma to get a job.
- Employers collude with universities, so that they do in fact require diplomas.
- Further add the requirement that the diploma must be granted by an accredited university.
- Control which colleges and universities get accredited and which don’t, thereby limiting competition. In particular, make the accreditation process so expensive that small independent colleges are excluded.
The net result is that the service (education) becomes virtually mandatory, but only members of the monopoly can supply the service. Consequently the members of the monopoly can charge (or extort) unrealistically high tuitions and get away with it.
So there are two related problems that go into making higher education a monopoly: accreditation, and the use of diplomas. My proposal is that we should seriously consider eliminating both. By eliminating accreditation we would open the marketplace to free competition, the result being lower prices. By eliminating diplomas, at least at the undergraduate level, we would teach people because they want to learn, not because they want a piece of paper.
What is the rational basis for accreditation? One can see why, perhaps, we should require physicians to be licensed — we don’t want quacks endangering the lives of unsuspecting patients. But do students need to be protected from ‘incompetent’ colleges? Can’t we let students themselves decide which colleges are supplying adequate service?
Consider the power of consumer choice in other areas. Does a hamburger chain need to be accredited, or can it just sell hamburgers, competing with other chains, succeeding if it satisfies customers and failing if it doesn’t? Do you check to see where your car mechanic is trained before doing business? Or do you choose based on demonstrated skill and reasonable price? If you can make your own choice of mechanics, restaurants, and movies, why are you deemed incapable of discriminating between excellent and lousy colleges? Why do you need an accreditation organization to do this for you?
Let’s look at another reason people claim to need accreditation: to control admission to professional and graduate schools. So accredited doctoral programs require bachelor’s or master’s degrees from accredited universities so they can turn out PhD’s qualified to teach at accredited universities. It is egregiously self-serving.
I hate to disappoint my fellow academicians, but I have a little confession to make. I went through a fully accredited PhD program. But the truth is that I learned almost nothing in my classes. There were a few good professors, but more often than not they were pompous bores. What I did learn I mainly learned by checking statistics books out of the library and reading in my own time. I taught myself Fortran, developed skill as a programmer, and wrote statistics and simulation programs. That was how I got my education. And I could have done just as well at an unaccredited university — or for that matter, if supplied only with a library pass and computer account.
It surprises me that people aren’t challenging employer diploma discrimination in court. It is a flagrant injustice, if not a clear-cut abuse of civil rights. Take two identical twins. Send one to an accredited university for four years, give the other a computer and internet access. Let them both read the same books and articles. Let one attend in-person lectures, let the other buy lectures from The Teaching Company. After four years you will likely find two equally well educated people. Then have them both send job applications to the same company. The non-degreed twin won’t even be granted an interview; his or her resume won’t be read or sent out of the HR department. Does anybody seriously believe that is legal?
It amazes me that so much interest and energy gather around an issue like gay marriage equity, while everybody sits silently and tolerates diploma discrimination, which is arguably much more serious, because it amounts to rich vs. poor discrimination, unmitigated elitism, and exploitation.
California State Senator Darrell Steinberg is co-sponsoring SB 520, titled “California Virtual Campus.” The Senate Bill would potentially enable California students to receive credit at public universities and colleges (UCs, CSUs, and CCCs) for courses taken online from any source. This would presumably stimulate competition, lower course costs, and make higher education available to more Californians.
Predictably, there is resistance from faculty associations. The Berkeley Faculty Association, for example, is circulating a petition to oppose SB 520. The petition states that SB 520 “will lower academic standards (particularly in key skills such as writing, math, and basic analysis), augment the educational divide along socio-economic lines, and diminish the ability for underrepresented minorities to excel in higher education.”
This, of course, is all nonsense. Nearer the truth is that the Berkeley Faculty Association wants to protect faculty jobs. It is sad indeed when they place their own job security ahead of sensible efforts to make higher education affordable and accessible to more Californians.
That said, anything the State Government touches will be tainted by money. No doubt many private online universities (e.g., Univer$ity of Phoenix) will jump at the new chance to make money. Whether online universities are actively lobbying State Senators is anybody’s guess (but what do you think?).
What we ought to do is to simply eliminate expensive and needless accreditation requirements for undergraduate colleges, whether brick-and-mortar or virtual. Consumers and market competition would then assure the highest quality courses for the lowest price. We should similarly eliminate four-year degrees, which are meaningless. People should take classes for the purpose of learning, not to get a degree. If undergraduate education were completely de-regulated, everybody – minorities included – would follow their natural inclinations to educate themselves, and select high-quality vendors. A world-class college lecture series would cost no more than to rent a Blu-Ray movie.
This infographic, sent to me by some colleagues, documents in clear and sobering terms the scope of the college tuition crisis and soaring higher education costs. It’s a very creative and effective way to get the message across, don’t you think?
The full article can be found here.
The first post in this series argued that the brick-and-mortar university is obsolete in its current form, because modern technology makes it unnecessary. Free, or nominally priced distance-learning courses are an alternative. As proof of concept, a later post constructed a sample liberal arts curriculum using existing high-quality video courses, with an estimated cost of $400/year.
Given that viable alternatives exist, why do young people still feel compelled to attend status quo corporate-style universities, even if that means paying insane tuition? It seems we must look to motivations beyond the simple wish to gain an education, i.e., to explanations in terms of emotional, social, and ‘intangible’ factors. Let’s consider a few of these.
Rite of Passage
Every young person instinctively seeks to gain social recognition – i.e., some form of achievement such that society will say, “you have arrived at adulthood.” This seems a basic requirement for self-esteem, at least in our society. Graduation from a college or university can meet this need for achievement. That is reasonable in itself. But the question must be asked: should we really subject students to massive debt merely for this purpose? Other ways to meet the need are possible (climbing Mt. Everest, hiking the Appalachian Trail, going on a mission, starting a business, completing a Great Books list, etc.)
We should add that there is both a good and a bad form of this. The good form supplies ways that young people can derive *genuine* self-esteem by accomplishing something beneficial to others. The bad form is elitism, whereby a person does something for the sake of gaining status. Modern universities appeal to this elitism.
Socialization and Partying
Clearly many students see college largely as an opportunity for socialization and partying. The former is arguably productive, or at least benign: young people make friends, join clubs, participate in intra-mural sports, etc. However this often degenerates into a partying lifestyle. Not only does that serve no productive purpose, it means that, in the case of public universities, taxpayers are required to subsidize this kind of atmosphere. This is also unfair to those students who approach college more seriously.
Delay of Entry to Workforce
If there are no jobs, society must have some way to handle the surplus labor. Colleges can be misused for this purpose.
Today’s public elementary and secondary school education, combined with the dumbing-down forces of modern culture generally, have potentially left young people today less emotionally and intellectual mature than in previous generations. Not really knowing who they are or what they want, students attend college for indefinite periods, hoping to eventually ‘find themselves’. However, all too often what happens instead is that they acquire the habit of laziness and lack of focus.
Transition from Parental Household
A seemingly minor point, but actually fairly important. If young people didn’t have some convenient and non-threatening way to move out of the parental household, they might stay there indefinitely. So young people and parents alike have this tacit incentive for the former to move off to college.
Having noted a few of these secondary motives for attending college, we can ask: is there some alternative way to address these without making young people pay enormous college tuition?
Of course there are, and if society tried, it could come up with better solutions. One simple example would be a program of nature camps, whereby young people (e.g. ages 18-20) spend a year or two living and working, say, in the mountains somewhere. Nominally, they’d do things like building trails or planting trees, maybe train in athletics. Informally, they could socialize, party, become more mature, etc. At least in the past, this paradigm was followed in certain Scandinavian countries.
Another alternative would be to encourage a wanderjahr abroad – informal traveling, perhaps organized around some theme of interest, like historical sites, national capitals, or museums.
Once they’ve sown their wild oats and gained maturity, young people could return at age 20 or 21 to begin their college education in earnest. When I taught I was strongly impressed by how much this age difference helped in terms of student focus. For example, students who started college after military service just breezed through courses; it made teaching much easier.
The bottom line is that we can separate the educational purpose from certain unnecessary social functions of the modern college. By addressing the latter in other ways, we should be able to make the educational function of colleges much more efficient, and can reduce tuition accordingly.
California Speaker Pérez’ plan for reducing public university tuition is a welcome sign, but doesn’t go nearly far enough. Sacramento should consider more sweeping changes:
1. Expand advanced placement testing
Let students ‘test out’ of any course, or even get a diploma that way.
2. Integrate third-party courses into curricula
For example, video lectures by The Great Courses are better than most brick-and-mortar college courses. A campus library can buy these and students (registered or unregistered) may watch them for free. Testing and grading could be done by local instructors.
3. Institute a Great Books program
Let students get from 1 to 2 years course credit by reading classics.
4. Eliminate or scale down college accreditation
Accreditation for undergrad studies is unnecessary; it’s merely a means by which existing universities and colleges monopolize the market. Remove the costly barrier of accreditation, and communities, churches, etc., can found inexpensive local colleges suitable for many students’ needs. This competition will drive down the tuitions of existing colleges.
5. Limit or eliminate student loans for undergraduates.
This will also force colleges to lower tuition and motivate cost-cutting.
Update: As of November 2016, things have gotten even better than when this article was originally written. The Great Courses now offers its courses online (viewable on computer or phone) for as little as $14/month. The new service is called The Great Courses Plus.
Modern technology is rapidly making the brick-and-mortar university obsolete in its present form. Many college lectures are already available online for free. There are also third-party courses, which are typically of superior quality, and cost much less than physical college courses.
Please note that I’m not talking about expensive online degree programs. I mean buying lectures or courses individually and teaching yourself. If you have money to burn, or don’t mind borrowing $50,000, and have a desperate need for a piece of fake parchment with your name printed on it, then there are plenty of colleges and universities that will be happy to take your money, and in return will fill your head with 60’s era New Left baloney. But if what you want is a solid education, the point of this article is to show that you get this on your own, and for a lot less money.
The leader in third-party college lectures is The Great Courses (TGC; formerly, The Teaching Company). They already have an extensive catalog of nearly 400 classes on DVD, CD, or for download, with more on the way.
TGC lectures have many advantages:
- At a regular university, only a few professors will be ‘superstars’. But TGC recruits the top professors from around the world. All lectures are given by intelligent, interesting, motivated, and skilled presenters.
- The production values are high. Lecturers are well-dressed and well prepared. Talks are given in pleasant settings that enhance the learning experience.
- You can watch or listen to them whenever you want; lectures can be paused or replayed.
The list price of TGC courses ranges from around $50 to $250 (much less than one pays at a university). However, there’s no need to pay full price. First, many libraries have TGC courses, and these can be watched for free. Second, most courses are available used at places like Ebay and Amazon. Third, a group of students can get together and swap courses. This means that one can typically get a used TGC course for $50 or less.
As proof of concept, let’s see if we can construct the equivalent of a four-year college education using existing TGC courses. We’ll assume that the goal is to get a well-rounded, Liberal Arts education, with a balance among science, history, literature, social science, and fine arts.
We’ll divide the curriculum into four years, and a year into two semesters, with four courses per semester.
[Update: as of November, 2016, The Great Courses Plus offers unlimited online viewing of their catalog for $20/month or less. Check that site first to see which of these courses are included there.]
Year 1 (Semesters 1 & 2)
- A Brief History of the World
- Classics of American Literature
- Psychology of Human Behavior
- Biology: The Science of Life
- Art of Reading
- Joy of Mathematics
- How to Listen to and Understand Great Music
Year 2 (Semesters 1 & 2)
- Understanding Calculus
- History of the United States
- Introduction to the Study of Religion
- Introduction to Anatomy and Physiology
- Nutrition Made Clear
- Development of European Civilization
- America and the New Global Economy
- Nature of Earth: An Introduction to Geology
Year 3 (Semesters 1 & 2)
- World’s Greatest Paintings
- Cycles of American Political Thought
- Great Minds of the Eastern Intellectual Tradition
- Oceanography: Exploring Earth’s Final Wilderness
- Game Theory in Life, Business, and Beyond
- Shakespeare: Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies
- Discrete Mathematics
- Our Night Sky
Year 4 (Semesters 1 & 2)
- Masterpieces of Ancient Greek Literature
- Meaning from Data: Statistics Made Clear
- Argumentation: The Study of Effective Reasoning
- Understanding the Secrets of Human Perception
- Why Economies Rise or Fall
- The Cathedral
- War and World History
- Physics and Our Universe: How It All Work
Assuming an average cost of $50 per course, the total cost would be 8 x $50 = $400 per year, or $1600 in total. As noted, if your local library has any course, or you can borrow one from a friend, it’s free. [To be revised taking into account the even less expensive online subscription plan.]
Additional Educational Resources
TGC lectures usually come with detailed course guides, including outlines, bibliographies and study questions. To enhance learning, you can consult the suggested readings and even write out answers to the questions. True, this might require more discipline than having a professor motivate you with grades. But if you really need someone else to ‘kick your butt’ for motivation, a life coach is much cheaper than university tuition!
The one thing that DVD courses lack is the sense of community one hopes to find at a college. But you don’t have to pay tuition to join a college community. Just rent a room in Berkeley, Austin, or Madison and join the intellectual culture; spend your days in self-study and evenings in recreation and conversation with intelligent people. Attend lectures and films, and take advantage of the opportunities for civic activism. Use the library. You might even find that self-study is giving you an edge over your college-attending friends.
It’s true that DVD or online classes don’t result in a diploma or degree (yet). But, honestly, are those things necessary? Yes, some employers require them. But the better companies place more value on the person. Showing that you have the dedication and self-discipline to teach yourself might impress these employers more.
Universities cannot continue to charge huge tuitions and load students with debt.
Hopefully, public opinion will push them to change. One thing they could do is to expand advanced placement options, such that students may test out and gain automatic credit for courses and subjects they’ve already mastered. In theory, someone could self-study, but have the university certify their competence.
Alternatively, we might see third-party companies fill the gap by administering, for a small fee, standardized tests or oral exams, and then issuing a certificate of completion or diploma.
- The Great Courses Plus (streaming)
- The Great Courses (DVD and CD)
- YouTube Channel
- 10 Free ‘Great Courses’
- Great Courses Discussion Forum
- 1200 Free College Lectures – not as good as The Great Courses, but worth a look
Modern technology has made the brick-and-mortar university in its present form obsolete.
Consider the following. For any given subject (e.g., Psychology 101), there are, in any semester, hundreds of lecturers delivering the course worldwide. The quality of the lecturers will vary considerably. Some will be outstanding and inspiring; some will be bland, uninformed, and unintelligible. Exactly one of these courses will be the best; the rest will be inferior. This means that only a small proportion of students will receive the best possible course. Some will even pay exorbitant sums for the privilege of getting mediocre or bad instruction.
But video and internet technology make it theoretically possible for every student to view the lectures of the best professor!
This produces a kind of paradox: it is in the best interests of students to, if possible, watch the lectures of the best professor; yet they have paid money to attend inferior lectures and are usually required to do so. The student truly desirous of quality education would end up watching both lectures!
A second consideration is the monetary value of lectures. We know that, as supply increases, cost goes down — i.e., a buyers market benefits consumers more than a sellers market. It is inevitable and certain that more and more courses, and ones of increasingly better quality, will be placed online, at lower and lower cost. Already one can buy world-class lectures from The Teaching Company, used, for $50 or less. Eventually some philanthropist or enlightened government will place university lectures online for free. For a mere $1 million, high-quality lectures for all courses associated with a basic Humanities or Liberal Arts degree could be produced and placed online for fee-less viewing.
At this point, the monetary value of a college lecture would be $0; this would render it absurd for American universities to continue charging students $50k to $100k for a degree.
Would this render the brick and mortar university completely obsolete? No — it would change its role. Professors would be freed from the burden of delivering the same lectures year after year. They could devote their time more to one-on-one mentoring and other types of activity which they and the students would find more fulfilling.
Thus, the role of the university will change. But to fully understand the nature of this change, we must consider the educational needs of students and society in the coming decades. This will be the subject of a subsequent post.