A blog . . . in spite of how pathetic blogging actually is.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

College Educations and the Economic Meltdown and the End of the Grand Illusion

Megan McArdle and Daniel Drezner had a candid conversation about what the past several months might mean for colleges and universities that aren't state affiliated. Check it out:

I'm a graduate of the University of Illinois, so I'm biased. I don't get it. I unapologetically subscribe to the results of just about every study that's ever been done on the subject: There's NO correlation between what you'll earn in the real world and what you pay for your college education. Furthermore, as a public university graduate, I wholly reject the argument that there's something magical about the learning experience of a private school. My classes were taught by mind-blowing professors who challenged me on a daily basis. I never felt like a number. I never "got lost" in any system. It was worth every state government supplemented penny for all the right reasons.

Since last September I've sent out 112 letters of recommendation for various high school students. 73 of them went to private schools (some Ivy, some small liberal arts, etc.). Public universities don't get as hung up on particulars when it comes to the admissions process, so my data is skewed. [I've seen just about every application there is to see over the years and I'm here to share the news: Private colleges and universities are much more demanding of students when it comes to the game of APPLYING to get in.]. What's the shot of this situation? Are my students having the rules of the game changed on them . . . in the middle of the game? Is yesterday's private school aspiration tomorrow's public school reality?

Drezner's most interesting comment dealt with the economics of brain power. If the best and brightest begin to move toward less expensive (aka, public) colleges and universities then won't those establishments become de facto academically elite (which, again, I'd like to suggest is already the case)? If so, what will be the long term consequences for private colleges? If the big secret gets out then what incentive will there be to pay $50,000 a year when $15,000 will get the job done better? When times get tough, adhering to tradition has its limits, and tradition (not academic superiority) is what fuels the private college and university system in this nation.

I attended a dinner party on New Year's Eve. It was a small gathering of remarkably successful friends: Private sector executives (some VP's, some partners, etc.), a couple of engineers, me (a teacher), and a flight attendant. The degrees at the table? UW Whitwater, UW Milwaukee, UW Milwaukee, UW Madison, Southeast Missouri State, UW Oshkosh, and the University of Illinois. We had a wonderful time.

And we felt quite adequate.

I don't mean for that to sound defensive. The theme of this post is simple, and if you've digested it, then you know that if I feel anything, it's as if I've gotten away with something. We're not exactly talking Will Hunting dressing down a Harvard kid in a Boston bar. A distant relative to that classic scene? Perhaps. Illinois did cost money, and it was considerably more than late fees at a public library.

But it was less . . . . wayyyyyyy less . . . than what Dartmouth would have set me back. And, if I may, it was worth every dollar saved.


Traipseround said...

I don't think that the economic incentive sending larger amounts of hs grads to cheaper schools will result in these (cheaper) schools becoming the academic elite.

For one, the bread and butter of the Ivy League schools, while hurting like the rest of us, will presumably find a way to get young Sarah into Harvard, probably at the cost of driving the Lexus for five years longer than they normally would, or losing one of their country club memberships.

Another issue has to do with what defines academic elite. It is not only the make-up of the student body. The endowments, whithering as they are for the time being, still allow for these elite universities to keep the best and brightest faculty on their campuses. With long term research projects and entrenched tenure systems keeping the faculties relatively stable, the economic times will not induce professors to rush off to Arizona State when things get tough in New England. In fact it will encourage faculty to stay put as a way to stabilize their employment picture in uncertain economic times.

All this said, I still agree with your premise that the Ivies are not worth the increase in price over the land grant state universities.


John Jacobson said...

I think I'd agree with every point you made in the short run. My take on the whole thing is generational. Economically, we're experiencing a seismic shift that fundamentally alters the landscape in such a way that nothing will ever be the same. All the well stated status quo arguments you make are (in my view) patently correct for the next 3-5 years. But beyond that? Play this out to 2020 or 2025 and I think you'll see what I'm referring to. There's a breaking point between now and then, and private schools will be victimized by it.

The beauty of this is that none of us will remember this post in 2025, and if I end up being wrong, I sure as hell won't remind any of you. If I'm right, I just might.


Everyone remember the old Centerstreetmedia.com when Sorely was in on the early versions of joystick polling and then claimed that Bush had lost the nation during his post-Katrina address (which he gave in New Orleans)? People HOWLED at Sore (and me, for supporing him) when he made his claim.

And what's the early take been lately on the Bush Administration's tipping point? I hear Katrina more and more and more.

OK, I'm rambling. I'm just saying . . . it's fun to make big claims about the future and then have pretty much total control over whether or not those claims get analyzed on down the road.

If only I'd of gone with the Ravens (Number 8)