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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Why are students willing to go into debt in order to pay large amounts of tuition in order to attend college?

Why are students willing to go into debt in order to pay large amounts of tuition in order to attend college? 
There are two questions here really.
Why does college cost so much?
Why do students want to attend college?
Let’s start with the first. Here are some important facts to get an idea about the costs:
Stanford University, as an example owns 8000 acres of very highly valued real estate. They didn’t purchase it and they don’t pay taxes on it but there are hundreds of buildings and playing fields and parking lots and laboratories and streets all or which require massive expenses to maintain. Full professors make an average of $188,000 per year at Stanford.
I am not picking on Stanford here. Its neighbor UC Berkeley has a slightly smaller campus and pays its faculty slightly less, but really they are pretty similar, except that UC is a state owned institution.
To run an operation of this size requires money, lots of it. Tuition does not actually even cover the cost. Universities must constantly ask for donations from alumni and rich people. In addition both of these universities are heavily subsidized by the Federal government in the form of research grants which pay astoundingly large amounts of overhead.
Even so, if they can get it they charge it, so like any business as long as there are customers who are willing to pay, tuition can keeping going up.  
The real question is why are students willing to pay? Couldn’t someone offer a cheaper alternative? Does college really have to be this expensive?
The first thing to understand about all this is that Stanford (I was a faculty member there once upon a time, but they are all the same really) is not about students. A student may think that these campuses were built for them and maybe they were originally but Stanford faculty are not thinking about undergraduate education. Faculty at places like that are in the research business and faculty members have no choice but to look for research money and then do the research that will satisfy the funder and then get more money.  This process does entail paying attention to one’s graduate students who are supported by that money, but undergraduate teaching is seen by nearly all Stanford faculty as an annoyance that one has to put up with and that it is best to buy one’s way out of if possible.
Faculty are happiest in the summer when the students have gone home and they are left with a beautiful peaceful campus in which to think great thoughts, work in their labs, and talk with colleagues.
So why do students go into debt in order to attend these institutions? A more interesting question is why undergraduate education is offered at all at places like Stanford and UC Berkeley (or Yale or Harvard.)
Stanford likes the income of course, but could survive without it. (There are respected universities that do not take undergraduates. Usually the general public hasn’t heard of them because they don’t have football teams or elaborate campuses. One is Rockefeller University in New York.) What Rockefeller doesn’t have, that Harvard has, are alumni who would scream bloody murder (and stop giving money) if Harvard shut down its undergraduate program.
If what I am saying is right, and believe me no faculty member would agree with me openly but most would privately, then why do undergraduates willingly go into debt in order to attend these schools?
In the case of Harvard, Yale, or Stanford, the answer is obvious. Saying you graduated from one of those schools, rightly or wrongly, will get you instant respect for the rest of your life.
But what about Florida Atlantic University, Elon College, Southern Connecticut State, Beloit College, De Paul University, or Texas A&M to name any of 3000 I could name?
Same big fees, and curiously, same curriculum more or less.
Now I haven’t mentioned curriculum to this point but students go to college to take courses right? At least that is the common agreed upon reason.
Now any professor knows that students are really there to get away from home, drink a lot, play sports and party on. But there are courses and students must come away with an education so it is all worth it right?
Now here is a radical thought: Sitting in a classroom, or doing required reading, and parroting it all back on a multiple choice test or in some research essay is not actually education. It is school, but it is not real learning. Real learning would involve learning to do things one will do later on in life. Rarely does one write a research paper, or run an experiment, or take a multiple choice test, much less do we listen to lectures. College prepares you for nothing in actuality. (Yale’s graduates may become investment bankers but they didn’t learn that at all, they studied Classics.) Colleges say they do prepare their students and pay some homage to teaching them to think, and there actually are some specialized programs that actually do teach students to do things. But for the most part, your average English major or physics major has learned nothing that he will use in his later life except at cocktail parties.
The faculty don’t care. They care about their research. If you want to learn to be a researcher, Stanford is the place for you. The curriculum Stanford teaches is meant to get you ready to take advanced courses which are the ones that faculty actually like to teach. They are preparing students to do research because they like research and that is all they know how to do.
Now this is less true of the smaller colleges and big state universities where there is less research going on, but even at those schools, the faculty desire to be researchers and they studied with researchers and they really want to try and get research grants and behave like their colleagues at fancier institutions.
So, in essence, they teach the same courses at Stanford as they do at BYU, or Northern Illinois.
What do the students get out of this? A big debt. A four year vacation (assuming they didn’t have to work while going to school) and not much else. Well, there is always graduate school.
Why do they put up with it? Because they feel they have no choice. Being a college gradate is seen as a big deal. It wouldn’t be seen that way if being a high school graduate meant anything at all, but it doesn’t. (And the peer pressure and parental pressure to go to college is enormous.)
The solution to all this: build a high school system that teaches what college should be teaching: practical experiences that will prepare you to make a living or know how to live. (I am quoting John Adams and Ben Franklin here by the way.)
This is why we need good on line universities (and good on line high schools.) When Stanford pretends to offer on line courses in order to get people off their backs they are simply doing what they have always done, ignoring the needs of the undergraduates.
It is time for on line universities that create real (or simulated) experiences through which students can learn to do things in the real world.
We will be teaching people to work in the software industry through some on line programs we are developing (see in the coming months. Stanford could do that if it wanted to but it won’t. The faculty at Stanford are willing to teach students to do research or to be intellectuals.  Teaching someone to be a programmer or how to open a business is beneath them. (I am not picking on Stanford here. This is true of any research university. It is also true of the other 3000 colleges in the US since their faculty typically haven’t had much real world experience to teach about.)
Now, of course there are exceptions to all of this, but as I said the real villain is high school. We can fix that by building an on line high school outside of the control of government (and book publishers and test makers.) 
In the mean time, my advice to students: think twice before taking on an enormous debt to attend an institution that really just wants your money.


Daniel Christian said...

Thanks for the honest posting here Roger.

After spending 15 years in the corporate world, I entered the world of higher education. At first I felt like a fish out of water and people in higher ed kept telling me that higher ed wasn't a business. Nonsense. Higher ed *is* a business. Unfortunately, I have to agree with you that undergraduates are often not served very well. Research trumps teaching...and if I had a vote, I'd separate those two functions completely. Teaching is way to tough to do it well if you approach teaching a course as an afterthought to one's research.

Thanks Roger,
Daniel Christian -- Learning Ecosystems blog --

Daniel Christian said...

P.S. from the article at The Washington Post":

The average public university president earned $421,395 in salary and other compensation in 2010-11, according to an annual survey by The Chronicle of Higher Education. And some, such as Ohio State University’s Gordon Gee, who brought home $1.992 million in total compensation last year, earn significantly more.

From DSC: Are we sure higher ed isn't a business?

Sachin Rajgire said...

Excellent Article Roger , I have been wondering from many years the same thing , Why ??? , I just cant get it .Anyways I dont see any SUBSCRIBE Tab where I get subscribed

Sachin Rajgire said...

Excellent Article Roger , I have been wondering from many years the same thing , Why ??? , I just cant get it .Anyways I dont see any SUBSCRIBE Tab where I get subscribed