Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Rising Cost and Deteriorating Quality of a College Education

My mother sent me an e-mail regarding "Now College is the Break", a WSJ article on the deterioration of student discipline at universities. She's worried about her grandchildren. If you have children approaching college age, you might take heart in my response below.

Sorry, Mom, but the snowball you tossed set off an avalanche of thought. I didn't have time to write a shorter response...

Don't distress when you see sensationalized reports on "youth these days." I too hate to think that all those brain cells are wasted on lazy debauchery, but the reality is, play is the best educator of all. A lot of the great inventions of the 20th century and early 21st came out of that wild college scene--google, facebook. The facebook  movie is worth seeing, but it is not hopeful about the characters like Zuckerberg that the ivy league churns out.

And there's an investment/service opportunity for more serious education options outside of the normal accreditation and reputation process. There's very little competition among universities for producing smart workers, just producing successful, networked, happy, confident graduates. The WSJ perpetuates this emphasis on reputation and social development with their annual review of universities. It often de-emphasizes the up-and-comers that lack a track-record of wealthy alums. But hey, with capitalism, that's just an opportunity for investment and hiring, for business leaders perceptive enough to ferret out hidden value.

At Thanksgiving, <Relative John Doe, a hedge fund manager> worried me with our discussion of the accelerating cost of education. Like I always do after talking to him, I bought stock. I bought a lot of Devry. It's doing really well (up 50%) as a cheap alternative to universities for the regular joe (and immigrant) that just wants to get a degree, learn a skill, and not drink with buddies. And the frat we founded at Vandy to give us an excuse to hang out together has done really well with it's bylaws that emphasize philanthropy, non-discrimination, and non-drinking (no thanks to me). More restrained drinking policies are spreading to the other frats at Vandy (from what I can tell). I actually think the current graduates are no more wild and undisciplined than your generation of graduates were, like Dad's Vandy class--I don't recall any motor vehicles ending up in the bell towers of major universities recently. And just like the disassemblers of that car learned a lot about buildings and mechanics, the MIT graduates that pull their annual pranks by hacking into the university computer systems learn a lot about computer security, networking, and forming a cohesive, effective, secretive team. Even the "rave" and "toga" party organizers learn a lot about advertising, promotion, and social media. I learned a lot about building security, motivational speaking, and the nature of large organizations of people (university administrations) while leading expeditions to explore the network of off-limit steam tunnels at Vanderbilt while the rest of the world slept. Sure we slept in and skipped class the next morning, but there are very few classes that I took that have had as much of an impact on me as that night, or for that matter, any of the other crazy nights that we did something "wrong."

And for the disciplined, without means, it's still possible to work your way through college or get a scholarships that makes it virtually free to your parents. UGA and GT are free to residents that qualify. Many of the best CA schools are similarly subsidized by progressive state governments that haven't privatized their future. It's the wealthy playboys at the top 1% of America (like us) that give universities a bad reputation and percolate to the top of corporate America to perpetuate the cycle with annual alumni donations. The struggling immigrants and blue-collar prodigy are often extremely productive during their college years if they are driven enough to make it that far.

After seeing so many amazing, bright, home-schooled kids on our trip, I've begun to see education institutions in a different light. Your kids will get an education , with or without a wholesome college environment, even if they went backpacking/sailing/bumming for a few years. The main thing a college gives them that they can't get elsewhere is a social network of future leaders, and a diploma that carries a bit of weight. They've already learned whatever values and discipline they are going to absorb before they go off to college. I read that human personality (shyness, nerdiness, gregariousness, discipline, anxiety, openness, etc) tend to solidify before puberty, largely based on interactions with parents. That's why you can all relax. You have great kids and no college is going to turn them into a monster. Most of my friends had wild times in college, but they are the same as when I knew them as kids.

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