Sun Feb 20, 2011

The U-Shaped Theory of Higher Education

Many forms of education run on a simple principle: if you get good applicants and train them in a straightforward fashion, you will get good results. In higher education, you start with freshmen. Then you flatten them (Econ 101) or mash them (Organic Chem). Add literature requirements or a foreign language. If you want a light taste, add a Phys Ed requirement, study abroad, or art appreciation.

That brings me to my theory of price-quality correlation in higher education. Everything I described is really simple to do and uses very common ingredients, even if it is a bit time intensive. It can also be made in large batches, so it should be cheap to make. And itis cheap in places where people actually care about decent training. That’s where you get the killer small college with excellent course modules for $150 a credit-hour. Saint Paul Collegein Minnesota has cheap, but good, courses in this range. Hesston, a Mennonite place, has decent low cost fare. Mayland CC is our best example.

So how can you charge $30,000 or $40,000 bucks per year for full service that’s nothing other than slow-cooked students with gowns? I don’t know, but I suspect the $8,000 course at the local private school with a John Harvard statue is charging for “atmosphere.” They are also doing a lot of extra prep — weird Red faculty, drowning stuff in melted Zizek, etc. Thus, the typical private school in this range is bad.

Oddly, education gets a whole lot better once you hit the $80,000-$100,000 range. Why? Well, because frankly it’s in my interest to claim it does. But at this point, you hit a price point indicating much higher quality ingredients. I mean students. For example, you might get a place with an actual French intellectual, who speaks French and everything. Or you might get a building that’s really as old as it looks. The knock-off faux gothic place isn’t going to be chasing students in this price range because they know they can’t fake it.

(Some context, if needed.)