Last night, during our breaking the fast supper, my daughter had an interesting discussion with me and my wife. My daughter is a senior in high school, and she's finalizing her applications for college–early decision application, early decision 2 applications, and regular admission applications. (When we first started talking about colleges last spring, I gave her a book on game theory–intro level; she never read it, unfortunately–too busy with classes.)

She had wanted to go to Wesleyan. It had everything she was after–small liberal arts school with lots of on campus activities, a strong record of graduate/work placements, small size, and a school where parties were not the rule of the day. Oh, and that it was on the other coast, away from my wife and me, only increased her interest in the school. She was also looking at Wellesley, Colby, Bowdoin, Carleton, Grinnell, and so on. Some public ivies too–U Wisconsin Madison, U Washington, and even some of the U of Californias, though the latter is her safety school.

The problem with the liberal arts colleges is that they now cost a fortune. Generally north of $45K a year and often north of $50K. The situation with the ivies isn't much different–they also cost a small fortune. The out-of-state tuitions for many universities (including the public ivies) are in the mid-20K range, and the chances of finishing in 4 years when attending them is diminishing by the semester. Needing to attend a U of Cal for 6 years to finish a major used to be a rarity. Not anymore. And there is no reason to think the status quo will improve any time soon. Here in California, the system developed by Pat Brown (the current governor's father) had the U of California system, the Cal State system, and then regional community college system. Not only are these systems struggling to find some way of increasing their capacity, but they are doing so at a time when the state government is cutting funding for education throughout the state, including these three post-secondary systems. This problem is not limited to California. In the SUNY system, all tuition goes to Albany, and the state legislature decides how much goes back to the individual campuses, rather than looking at each campus as a P&L center (as U of C campuses do).

Why bring all this up? My daughter is now contending with the question of what's the best value for getting a college education rather than what's the "perfect place" for her. So far, so good. This was what we discussed last night at dinner, and it got me thinking about the post-secondary education system here in the US. At the college level, that system has been in place for three centuries or so. At the graduate/professional level, the current system came into being during the mid-to-late 1800s. The problem is that with the current levels of tuition, the cost of a baccalaureate is rapidly becoming (if not already there) out of reach for much of the middle class population. Using loans is rapidly becoming untenable in the face of college grads unable to find jobs and one-in-twelve of the workforce unemployed. (I won't get into the loan fiasco as regards professional grads–the average medical student having debt north of $150K and for more than a third, it's in excess of $200K.) For many of the existing loans, it seems likely that someone other than the college grad will be left paying the bill. That's debt of about $1.2 trillion at risk. The bottom line is that the current system is rapidly becoming–if it is not already–unsustainable.

The question must be asked about what is the value of a bachelor's degree. I ask the question because it is becoming easy to have access online to some of the outstanding courses available at many of America's premiere universities. Will a degree really have much value when an employer is interested in what you have learned somewhere–online or in person? It used to be that the only way to obtain the knowledge was to attend a college or university in a degree program. The degree was a proxy for knowledge. But there are now other sources for obtaining that knowledge–does spending the money on a college degree make sense any longer?

The situation is even more daunting when you consider that during the mid-1970s, when I went to Johns Hopkins, tuition was about $3K a year. That was also the price of a Chevy Nova car at that time. A Chevy Spark now costs under $15K, and has a MSRP of $12K and change. Tuition at Johns Hopkins today? $50K.

All those contributions to one's alma mater are prolonging the day of reckoning for a system that will need to undergo extensive reform, and that reform will need to accommodate other forms of education rather than only in-person class attendance. Western Governor's University ( may be one example, but insofar as it is built around actual degrees, I'm not sure that it's the only type of solution.

An educated workforce is a major prerequisite for a competitive United States, yet the education system is in the middle of a crisis about which there is precious little discussion. That has to change.

Richard Owen writes: 

Education is becoming the quintessential branded luxury, taking a commodity input and stamping it with a brand.

Markets are made at the margins: the price driver has been (i) the rising share of wealth located abroad and (ii) the higher percentage of production available to the best paid domestic workers. The West is importing the GINI ratio of the Emerging Markets when it comes to high end property, education, etc.

Take British public schools: fees are now $45k/yr for the full school life, rather than just a terminal three years at college. For three children that's $135k/yr post-tax wage dollars. 7% of the UK is privately educated historically, yet the former figure is well into the 1% income range. Whats made up the marginal demand? Wealthy foreigners with untrammeled, untaxed, EM boom dollars. London is undergoing a reverse colonization. Hence in some bijou streets in the capital, residential is up 40% in two years, (having fallen not at all during the crisis, so that's not a bounce off the lows).

Carder Dimitroff adds: 

I have two daughters in their 20s. Both have Ivy-league degrees. Frankly, I'm not sure Ivy matters.

There are wonderful state and private colleges. Most decent universities offer inquiring minds incredible opportunities. If a student is looking to learn and grow, most "average" universities can dish out more than most students can handle.

A good example is my cousin's daughter. She attended a low profile public college in Florida. She went in with the attitude of learning and developing. She and several of her classmates became Fulbright Scholars. Now she is Ph.D. candidate at Duke.

If you look at Ph.D. candidates at the nation's leading research institutions, you may notice most of them never attended Harvard, Yale or Princeton. The same can be said for many business, political and military leaders.

Each school has its own culture. In my opinion, a key to a parent's success is matching the college with the student's personality. If the student love the place from day one, all is good.





Speak your mind

7 Comments so far

  1. Bill Herrmann on September 28, 2012 12:33 pm

    While the analysis is certainly reasonable and necessary, one should not confuse sticker price with real price when looking at tuition costs. A student with a SAT for the Ivy or Public Ivies should not be paying sticker. Sticker price is for those students with poor preparation but rich parents.

  2. Ed on September 28, 2012 2:23 pm

    The entire delivery system and cost structure of higher education is ludicrously obsolete. The notion that families should take on loans to pay for an obsolete product is insane.

    For the great majority, high standards + modern delivery/learning methods + knowledge certification is what is badly needed. The problem is that most “for profit” higher ed has so far focused on milking government subsidies rather than coming up with a low cost, superior product.

    Liberal arts school are a luxury for the wealthy or unusually talented (top 1%), simple as it is. For most it is/would be money down the toilet.

  3. Bill Brauer on September 28, 2012 4:36 pm

    Even as a sophomore at Michigan State in 1970, the core economics courses were offered as a live lecture than also on video tape at other locations during the day. With the internet one would think the delivery mechanism would change and remote learning could supplant the on-campus mode. The real truth is the ease of the loans has greased the skids for higher pricing. The rate of tuition increaase over several decades far outstrips inflation. I don’t think professors are horribly overpaid. Would love to look at a budget of a major university.

  4. steve on September 29, 2012 7:14 am

    I have said this for many years. I spent my formative years in the great state of Ohio. Land of Presidents and The Ohio State University. I went to The Kent State University when it was a small city University known primarily for riots. Now it has become the second largest school system in the State and has some programs which are nationally recognized for their outstanding education and upward mobility which they afford.

    I find it completely unlikely that a degree from a high quality state institution such as Ohio State, Penn State, Mich St. Mich, Indiana, Purdue, Pittsburgh, Kent State does not carry high merit. I have a great personal friend who graduated from Kent State and has since gone on to a fantastic career as a Neurosurgeon. I have other colleagues who have had exemplary careers in the sciences, architecture, education, and business. Thus my thesis is if a student is looking for quality of education then look no further than a State funded institution.

    I once asked a Professor of Economics/Finance from Duquesne his advice on Public vs Private education. His comment to me was this: The first thing I tell parents is consider a State College first. Enroll your child there. Keep your costs under control as much as possible. If you can afford to, establish an escrow account with the difference of the cost it would take for a private college vs a public college and do not tell your child. After they have completed their degree, tell them with the vast amount of money you saved, they now have capital available to start a business, buy a house, have funds available for graduate school and much more. This way you have helped them fund two careers. That is the best advice I ever received.

    Private schools are fine and nepotism can be important, but if the student can get into a state funded University, I suggest this is where one begins.

    My father would ofter say If you have the goods, people will find out about you and will want you.


  5. JDT on October 1, 2012 12:56 am

    There is endless discussion about education. I’m not sure what any of it means but it’s certainly not an ignored topic.

    I think we’ll return to a more apprenticeship based system. I learned far more about programming, markets/trading, and statistics in my first six months after graduating than the four or five years prior in school. My credibility, such as it is, is almost entirely derived from experience rather than education.

    And please note: the notion that modern universities are in the business of producing skill necessary for a 21st century workforce is a bit quixotic. I’m not sure how a BA in sociology really develops skills and the marginal student is far more likely to be in that program than chemistry, physics, or computer science.

  6. barry gitarts on October 1, 2012 12:27 pm

    This is more a debate about college degree value rather then the value of education which can also be acquired via experience and self-learning, we all know education is valuable, the real question is college education vs education alternatives.

  7. Adam K on October 2, 2012 6:37 am

    While I cannot vouch for the method personally a number of websites have detailed a method to obtain an undergraduate degree in about a year and for approximately five thousand dollars through the use of CELP and other exams. Once the individual has accumulated the necessary credits they would transfer to an accredited school to graduate.


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