MitGiven that one can listen at low cost/free on the Internet to the best professors in the country giving courses in many leading subjects (MIT has all its courses free online, Yale and Stanford some of theirs), how long will consumers be willing to pay $200,000 for four years of Ivy League and other leading private courses often taught by uninspiring assistants and graduate students — often, in the case of math and science courses, mumbling foreign graduate students whose English is incomprehensible? I well realize that a degree from a leading private university is a considerable signal to employers, potential spouses and others, of one's intelligence and diligence (and I also realize that the $200,000 cost is usually not borne by the consumer him- or herself). But still, how long in this age of technology, outsourcing and arbitrage can such a differential persist?

Steve Ellison reports:

In an NBER paper, Avery and Hoxby state:

If [a student with very high college aptitude] acts as a "rational" investor, not bound by credit constraints … then he need make only two calculations for each college in his choice set. Supposing that the student has figured out the cheapest way to attend each college, given the aid offered him, his first calculation is the present discounted cost of attending each college j …

His second calculation is the present discounted value of the consumption he enjoys at college j plus the present discounted value of the stream of income generated by the human capital invested in him at college j …

Jeff Sasmor reacts:

What college student thinks this way? As someone who has just gone through this process with an intelligent child entering college (Barnard) next fall, the decision involved more emotional choices than rational ones.

1. What school best fits what I think I want to do with my life?

2. What school has the type of people I want to hang out with for the next four years?

3. I want to get out of NJ. Even though I was accepted into Rutgers' Honors program I don't want to go there, yuk. I want to go to a brand-name school. I want NYC because I want to experience an urban lifestyle. You know, I'll need a bigger allowance!

4. Don't lecture me, I don't care what it costs.

Riz Din shares:

I was painting our fence the other day while listening to a variety of quality podcasts and lectures (painting a fence takes longer than I thought) and I had similar thoughts.

The differential has to fall over time because the act of standing in front of a group of people and lecturing them is outmoded in today's world and is fast becoming commoditised through technology. The idea of an institution herding students into a room at a fixed time and having a one-sided conversation with them while they rapidly jot down all the salient points just doesn't hold water when there are much better, more productive ways of teaching. I start to drift after the half hour mark in many lectures and being able to press 'pause' on the lecturer would have been a real boon.

Universities can be extremely slow to adapt (e.g. Latin was standard at Oxford and Cambridge several hundred years after other places of learning adopted English), so overhauling the entire way of teaching may be some years in the making. Nevertheless, I think the education establishments are going to have to figure out how to better differentiate themselves because we thankfully live in a world where one's prospects depend less on one's place of learning or social standing and more on one's capability. Just as increased competition in the forex world led to massive spread reductions over the years, forcing many banks to evolve and differentiate their forex offerings with value-added propositions such as better research, option strategies, trading systems, etc., so universities and other places of learning must adapt their models. As a hybrid model at least, I can foresee on-line lectures combined with seminars and other, more interactive modes of learning. In today's world, perhaps knowledge isn't power because it isn't scarce, and the emphasis is increasingly on the the application of knowledge.


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