Tuesday, June 9, 2015


Courtesy of a former president of Cornell and Iowa:
Even on purely economic grounds, such questions [about the "value" of a college education], while not useless, begin with a false assumption. If we are going to treat college as a commodity, and an expensive one at that, we should at least grasp the essence of its economic nature. Unlike a car, college requires the “buyer” to do most of the work to obtain its value. The value of a degree depends more on the student’s input than on the college’s curriculum. I know this because I have seen excellent students get great educations at average colleges, and unmotivated students get poor educations at excellent colleges. And I have taught classes which my students made great through their efforts, and classes which my students made average or worse through their lack of effort. Though I would like to think I made a real contribution to student learning, my role was not the sole or even determining factor in the value of those courses to my students.
A college education, then, if it is a commodity, is no car. The courses the student decides to take (and not take), the amount of work the student does, the intellectual curiosity the student exhibits, her participation in class, his focus and determination — all contribute far more to her educational “outcome” than the college’s overall curriculum, much less its amenities and social life. Yet most public discussion of higher ed today pretends that students simply receive their education from colleges the way a person walks out of Best Buy with a television.
Note, also, that a college president can only (credibly) talk like this if he has taught extensively himself.   Here's the whole thing, well worth your perusal. 


  1. Thank you Cassandra!
    "Unlike a car, college requires the “buyer” to do most of the work to obtain its value."
    I think that's going to go on my (ever-expanding) syllabus.

  2. It costs money to go to Disneyland. But if you don't ride anything, then that's your problem.

  3. It's a gym membership. It's furniture from Ikea.

    Consumers "tolerate" all kinds of scenarios in which they have to expend significant personal effort to receive the benefit of their "investment". Somehow they expect education to be different.

  4. It's definitely a gym membership.

    Because sitting in the cafe drinking lattes all year means you are as unfit as when you started.

    Because the idea of going to class and of getting a programme of work and working on it yourself between meetings is built in so even the most literal minded of students can see the connection between the analogy and what I'm asking them to do.

    Because you can hire a guy (or a college student!) cheaply to assemble your Ikea furniture for you, but there is no way anyone else can run on that treadmill for you (yet, anyway) - even things like toning tables and those wierd plate machines require YOU to DO STUFF.

    Also, because some wierdos think it's actually fun to jump around in skimpy clothes and sweat a lot (just like your wierdo profs think it's fun to read a book), but everyone who does it regularly gains and feels better afterwards!

    1. Brilliantly put. Too many students hire others to "assemble" their coursework as it is, so the Ikea analogy breaks down.

      Another apt analogy might be that it's an aerobics class. If you can't find the self-motivation to keep up with the class, and/or want a personal trainer to help motivate you, you'll have to pony up a bit more cash.