The End of Expensive College?

When Harvard University denied Warren Buffet’s candidacy for admission, the university smiled on two out of three applicants. Today, Harvard admits two applicants out of 33, around six percent. “Competitive” as admissions may be at some schools, there is a growing sense in our culture that attending college is no longer about acquiring skills, developing abilities, or obtaining information—or indeed, that a college education is necessary at all. Only the need for the credential remains. Even the need for the piece of paper with the student’s name and the fancy typeface is fading fast. A generation from now a college degree may be the equivalent of a buggy whip, an expensive accoutrement for which the necessity is long past.

A brief history of education in the west: It is widely believed that, generations ago, going to college was indicative of ability. Smart, able students went to college. In actuality, going to liberal arts college said something else entirely about an young person. Indeed, the application forms could be reduced to one question: “Does your father own land?”

Because if the answer was “Yes, Daddy has 10,000 acres of arable soil” then Junior was welcome to come study Latin, Greek, Philosophy, Literature, and Calligraphy. The curriculum was, by definition, only for those students who could afford the luxury of learning, for those students who DIDN’T NEED TO WORK. Farmers and the sons of farmers went to land grant colleges and learned—you guessed it—farming. Sons of landed gentry had no reason to know where the plows were kept. Think impeccably dressed and exquisitely articulate Nigel Havers in “Chariots of Fire”. Remember the scene where Lord Lindsay’s servant pours champagne into a glass on each of the hurdles? Of course you do. Remember the scene where Lord Lindsay takes a course on car mechanics? Of course not. There was no such scene.

Before the Civil War, half of Americans lived on farms; today, fewer than two percent of Americans live where their food comes from. A hundred years ago in this country, college was far away; the journey took time and money. Land grant colleges were in the state capital—Madison, Wisconsin; Austin, Texas; Columbia, South Carolina—and taught more about useful skills than about the liberal arts. “Real” colleges, for students who didn’t need to work on the farm, required the commitment to a trip east. Resources, specifically books and professors, were a thousand miles away out east. The family home has one book: the family Bible. The town library was unlikely to stock The Communist Manifesto. The big ideas were in the books, the books were in the libraries, the libraries were in the colleges, and the colleges were out East.

Fast forward a couple generations: College is no longer an economic necessity; college is no longer an economic reality. The curriculum is available on-line. Teachers, professors, PhDs are—if not a glut on the market—certainly a higher proportion of the population than ever before in the history of our country. Whatever you want to learn—Kierkegaard, mechanical engineering, Byzantine Architecture, The Evolution of the Corduroy Suit—is a click away.

If all college curricula aren’t available on-line, enough of them are so that the few that are missing don’t matter. Large brick and mortar colleges frequently rely on classes “taught” by computer replay anyway. Once 42 (three class meeting per week times a 14-week semester) freshman calculus lectures have been recorded, all the monies paid to the teachers of freshman calculus teachers can be used elsewhere. (If you think that sounds like brutal arithmetic for the families of those fired math teachers, I agree.) Does it matter if your son is sitting in his dorm room across the country or in his room at your home when he takes learns how to find the area under a curve?

A client of mine summed it up as follows: “My daughter needs to go to college,” he began. “But she doesn’t need to go to an expensive college. I spent over $200,000 on her older sister who has student loan debt and is earning ten dollars an hour. She went to a name school.”

He goes on to argue: “The crummy job she has now and the ‘real’ job she will get later have nothing to do with where she got her degree, only that she has a degree. I won’t make that mistake again.”

For the purpose of argument, I summarized what I had learned having visited a hundred colleges over the years: “What about the purpose of a quality liberal arts education? What about the fact that your older daughter can pose, research, solve and articulate the answers to sophisticated problems? What about the small classes, the connections with professors who were there for office hours and gave out their home phone numbers?”

“I can no longer afford any more home phone numbers,” he replied.

The president of the University of Miami has promised a paperless campus by 2015. Books—other than electronic books on-line—and book stores for that matter, will go the way of card catalogues before them. If professors are recorded and books are only virtual, can the college campus itself—an overpriced bastion only of alcohol abuse and sporting events--be far behind on the road to obsolescence and extinction?

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