Wednesday, May 4, 2011

When Will College Cease to be Relevant?

So here I am in a place that, honestly, I never really thought about when I started a family.  I am just a few years away from the "great college hunt" for Son #1.  In the part of Burbania in which I live, it is an annual rite of passage for children--sometimes starting in their Sophomore year--to collect viewbooks, burnish their talking points and go out on the "college tour."  Ultimately this leads to a personal existential crisis and--finally--selection of the "perfect place" to spend the next four (or more) years.

The problem is that I have no realistic way of paying for this.  I don't mean in the sense of the boys not being able to go to the "schools of their choice".  I mean that I cannot afford any school.  Period.  Also, I do not see that situation changing in the near future.  My wife and I chose professions that help people.  The financial rewards are, therefore, somewhat limited.

One can ignore many of the issues around this odd distribution of wealth.  Our work is fulfilling, after all, and renting isn't all that bad.  However, in the case of college, it is a problem.  The question isn't whether we will go into debt but how much debt we are willing to take on.  There are three of the little dears, so we must ration--carefully--the family resources.  Perhaps they will live at home and study at one of the local state universities.  Perhaps they (and we) will have to take on more jobs to make it work.  I don't know.  It is an open question.

I also wonder how long we Burbanians are going to let this situation last.  I am well aware of how much better off my family is than most people are.  If we cannot afford the escalating tuition, how will other people?  Who is going to all these schools?  Is everyone going into debt for fear that their child is one step closer to homelessness without a degree from Bates? 

There is a sense from the media and from parents that there is nothing we can do.  According to common wisdom, college is necessary and, therefore, we must sacrifice what financial security we might have for the sake of our children.  Still, as tuition and fees increase, shouldn't there be a moment when we decide that Harvard is just one big scam?  There has to be a better way to gain the knowledge that college ostensibly provides.  These institutions may be pricing themselves into irrelevance.

I am serious here.  If tuition increases and becomes (increasingly) an exclusive club for those who can afford exclusive clubs, there will come a time when the rest of us find other options.  For example, why can't my children "homeschool" their undergraduate experience?  We are, as I have mentioned in other posts, members of the Boston Athenaeum, a private library with collections primarily focused in the arts and humanities.  My kids are bright.  They can do their own research.  Also, "a la carte" college courses taken as necessary could fill in gaps.  Even with occasional courses, membership in a library, and other costs, the expense would be much less and the education at least as good for a motivated student.

People in my generation (that would be GenX) graduated with mountains of debt.  It isn't at all clear that it was worth it.  Now another generation is learning the same thing.  What are the chances that smart people are going to repeat the mistakes of the past?  Wait...don't answer that. 

What I meant to say was that it only takes a few people to change the way we think about higher education.  All it takes is enough people to think outside the box to create a new paradigm in learning.  The argument that one has to go to college to be an intellectual  has always been a weak one.  The argument that a piece of paper from a large institution qualifies you for gainful employment may be weaker than we thought as well. Programs of self-education have the potential to create curious life-long learners.  Perhaps some of our children will give it a try...


  1. With a junior in high school, we are now fully immersed in college-prep hell. One thing we have discovered: a number of schools, mostly high- profile ones, guarantee that, if they accept a student, they will fund that student. We, like you, have no actual way of paying for our children's college education, so this information is a comfort. But it's also an anxiety because it shifts the burden to the child who fears he isn't good enough to get into a good school. Re Harvard being a scam: I can't speak to Harvard in particular, but for both Tom and me, getting into really good colleges changed our lives . . . not because we ever learned to make money (sigh) but because suddenly we were surrounded with brilliant peers who weren't only geeks and pre-meds and brown-nosing future Ph.D.s but were incredibly intelligent, focused, imaginative screw-ups. That is to say, they were the kids who grew up to be artists and writers and philosophers and bartenders and fighters for social justice, etc. But they weren't thinking about education as job training: they were thinking about education as learning, and this, for better or for worse, is something that state-supported universities no longer publicly emphasize. I would like our sons to have the gift of crazily smart off-beat friends, the kind that don't appear to exist in high schools in rural Maine and 30 years ago didn't exist in southeastern Massachusetts either.

  2. A lot of economists are guessing this will happen sooner rather than later ("education bubble" is not an unknown term) given the rise of the internet. We are already seeing it with less practical degrees (zero to negative return on investment) like graduate school - six figures of debt to get a Masters in English Lit from a B-level school? Would be better to join a book club... I wouldn't bet on these paradigms shifting in time for your kids - but in 50 years or so I'm guessing there will be a lot more educational competition and a lot more ways to become educated and develop the skills necessary to make it in a career - which are not at all the same thing.

  3. I'm really enjoying reading your thoughts here. Saw this article this morning and thought you may appreciate it...

  4. Thanks for commenting folks!

    Dawn, I understand your concern. However in my case, I started at a school that promised the aformentioned funding. After it turned out their funding plan was for me to take out $20,000 in loans every year, I transferred to U Maine and found the exact same sort of people that were at the more expensive private school. One of myths perpetuated in the educational system is that smart folks interested in an education only go to the expensive schools while the ones interested only in job training go to the cheaper ones. This has not been my experience. Lots of crazily smart off-beat people, after all, can't afford those big schools. In fact, depending the beats you are off, those name schools may be less likely to look at you. I found a lot of interesting people in the state university system who were making their own paths.

    Also, lots of those same people are able to form communities outside the traditional college system. I wonder what a group of collaborative scholars would look like in a "homeschool college" setting...

  5. Oh, and Deep River...I knew I would miss that education bubble but I am glad people are thinking about different sorts of things...

    Thanks for the link Mary!

  6. You may be right about the interesting population, Adam, but I believe the loan burden has since become enormous in the state schools; and I think this is one of the aspects that the "guaranteed education" schools are deep-sixing, at least on the undergraduate level.

  7. Several points:

    1. The economic return to a college education is still very high, although it has not been going up recently, after very rapidly increasing for some years. How much of this is due to signaling rather than real effects of education is uncertain.
    2. There are many well-paying jobs that do not require a four-year college degree, for example, the various skilled construction trades, etc.
    3. Community college for the first two years is a more cost-effective option for many students.
    4. Harvard and Yale are essentially tuition free for most students from families in what I imagine your income bracket to be. Of course, getting into these schools is extremely difficult even for students with the strongest qualifications.
    5. Our education system is no doubt inefficient in many ways. There are probably cheaper ways of imparting more knowledge and skills. At some point, the escalating costs of education will force innovation to explore these improvements.