Cost-Benefit Analysis

Posted: November 11, 2010 in Blogosphere, Consumerism, Economics, Philosophy

This blog post, which was picked up by The Consumerist, argues that college/university is a bad deal for most students. It’s well enough written and argued (I won’t pick my usual nits), but I daresay the author/blogger has an awfully narrow view. If one approaches higher education solely as a consumer product meant to pay future dividends — mostly financial — then the awesome debt load most recent graduates now carry makes the initial cost-benefit analysis look like the whole endeavor is a preposterously bad deal. To those students, I say, caveat emptor. An almost total lack of financial advice from parents foists decisions on high school students selecting colleges at a time when they are especially unprepared to weigh big financial risks, since they tend to gather motivations and directions from their peers and some vague received wisdom of what life and higher education mean or ought to mean.

Let me acknowledge up front that in many respects, college is indeed not the right place for a lot of people. It has become too much an extension of high school and functions now as a 4- to 7-year party for those who take scholarship not at all seriously. Institutions of higher education are also part of the problem, from the elites that extort huge sums for their supposed cachet to the online degree mills that grant meaningless credentials based on life experience. All the more reason to make wise choices, preferably with the guidance of someone who has been through the experience and has more remove than the typical 25-year-old. Recent graduates also have the bad luck to be entering the job market at a notoriously difficult time. Accordingly, one’s perspective changes a lot based on extrinsic factors not entirely germane to the intrinsic value of higher ed.

Such an economic lens is certainly part of the picture, and the blogger admits making a number of poor decisions he might take back now with the advantage of hindsight, but economics is not the only or best means of evaluating activity in different stages of life. A good, valuable, meaningful, accomplished life is simply not measured in dollars. If that were so, there would not be so many boorish, self-indulgent, and often unhappy rich people (especially rich celebrities) whose drag on society far outweighs any contributions they make. I will eschew naming any names, but a long list could be assembled handily. Our collective fascination with the rich and jealousy of their circumstances only demonstrates further our failure to recognize true worth.

What interests me is the lost sense that knowledge and understanding, gained through a time-honored system of submission to expertise and authority (as opposed to autodidacticism, which is effective for only a sliver of the population), often leading to a circumspection and personal depth invisible to those who enter the trades or professions, with or without the university degree, but who have no sense of themselves or their place in the world except as employees or technocrats. Those people are many, too, and not so surprising when you consider that most of our daily life is characterized as economic activity rather than development of the self or service to others.

The author’s rhetorical gesture about love of learning rings false to me. He tossed it in there as a hedge (yadda, yadda, yadda …) but clearly is more obsessed with the earning potential a college degree should confer. He appears to believe, like most, that learning is more about ascertaining facts, which he could do himself, rather than developing a cohesive way of thinking over a lifetime, yet built on habits of mind learned under the tutelage of professors during a concentrated, formative period in early adulthood. For those with such a stunted view of life, the famous Socratic statement that an unexamined life is not worth living is regarded as a fool’s errand when there’s money to be made.

  1. Let’s analyze a few statements from the article itself.

    “You can and many people certainly do just fine without a degree”
    What exactly is fine? Above the poverty line? It’s not a clear qualification. The irony of this statement is that it’s so much easier to get some sort of internship or experience that would make one favorable in the eyes of employers while going to school. The prospect of working at McDonald’s isn’t very fun and there isn’t exactly a demand for people with no marketable skills or experience.

    “If I were to do it all over again, I would have gone to a traditional school to be part of a think-tank of like minded people but in reality college is not required to connect with others”
    Maybe not, but unemployed Billy or Bobby isn’t going to help you score connections and get promotions.

    The rest of the article is either so unrepresentative of college students or so irrelevant that I won’t address it.

    My personal stance of it is this: if I didn’t get financial aid, I wouldn’t go to college. As you suggest, college has become an extension of high school, and as such, a requirement for jobs, serving the function a high school degree used to serve — the general “stamp” of competency. It’s not all about the money, but the more money I can make, the less time I have to work, and the less I have to worry about money in general; I’m not heading toward either extreme.

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