Jag Venugopal's Blog

May 18, 2011

Is a college education worth it?

Filed under: Project Management — Jag @ 1:16 pm

Keith Murray, the graduate dean at my Alma Mater, Bryant University discusses on his blog whether a college education is worth the expense. He’s a much-respected dean at a very nice, small school. But his response was a typical dean’s response: College is a great bargain when measured against lifetime earnings; what’s required is a way to finance it — an education mortgage!

I commented on his post. Here’s what I wrote.

The question ought not to be “Is college worth it”. Rather the question ought to be “Why does college cost so much, and what can we do to reduce its cost?”

Is there space for a spartan university where teaching (not research) is the primary focus, and creature comforts (e.g. dorms, gym, arena) are minimalistic? Can that reduce costs? Can we reduce teaching costs by having a greater proportion of non-tenured teaching staff?

Another question is — why do textbooks cost so much? In the IT/ComSci area, trade publications by renowned authors cost in the region of $20-50 whereas you can’t even start talking about textbooks below the $150 mark. Does every textbook need to be hardcover in glorious full-color, updated every two years? Could they be distributed electronically, and their cost folded into the tuition (after all, they are not a discretionary purchase). If colleges had to pay the publishers’ bills from their general revenues, then perhaps there would be greater incentive to strike a bargain with publishers.

As a parent who is saving for college, I also think about the relative merits of state schools (with in-state tuition) vs. private schools. Is the difference in the quality of education between say BU and Northeastern on the one hand, and UMass on the other significant enough compared to the difference in cost?

My concern is that eventually, other countries will figure out how to deliver “good enough” education at much lower cost, thereby reducing the cost of human capital. Its already happening in India for IT — the education is nowhere near great, but it will soon enough get to “adequate”, at perhaps 1/20 to 1/30th the cost. That means an Indian can afford to earn less, because she has minuscule student loans to pay back compared to someone in the US.


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