Overpriced Higher Education and Alternatives?

I keep swiping del.ic.ious links from people that it’s a wonder I haven’t broken down and started my own account. (I used to tag and catalog bookmarks with Backflip, and since then I haven’t looked back. One of the reasons is my memory is fairly well-organized, and if not, google seems to find almost everything I look for these days.

In general I’ve used weblogs as links repositories, but this has become unwieldy as I write up more posts and wordpress search page abbreviates entries. I like corante’s and Kottke’s brief links interleaved with longer commentaries on links.

All this is an unnecessary preface to explaining why I am swiping links off Cog’s del.ici.ious page. See for example tips for styling your Docbook output.

Andrew Hacker on the economics of college admissions.

budgets at all of the twelve leading schools except MIT expect that the full tuition amount be paid by at least half of the applicants they enroll. The result is that students whose parents can pay the full amount will have an extra edge.[4]

What Douthat says of Harvard applies to most of the other colleges on the list. His fellow members of the class of 2002, he says, were “a wildly privileged lot, culled from the country’s upwardly mobile enclaves and blessed with deep, parentally funded pockets.” He estimates that 70 percent of his peers came from families with incomes exceeding $100,000 a year, with many well over that. The standard story is that an Ivy League education is open to talented young people regardless of income or origin. Douthat says this seldom happens in practice. “Meritocracy is the ideological veneer, but social and economic stratification is the reality.”

Here are some interesting data points: median salaries for full professors at Ivy Leagues, admission/acceptance/tuition rates at the Ivy’s.

Although the article is informative, it says little about the trend of vocational institutes/community colleges/informal learning environments like SIGs and conferences. It is unrealistic to apply observations made about elite colleges to general higher education trends. For one thing, four year colleges are heavily discounted by scholarships and financial aid. They require that students (and parents) buy into the 4 year concept.

But web communities and Meetups offer educational opportunities at lower costs. Certain academic disciplines require institutional support, but others do not. Why for example do we need English departments to teach writing when we have commercial writing workshops/writer’s organizations and yes, even book clubs? The US university is another example of the overselling of a service to students that they probably cannot afford.

I would like as a hypothetical experiment to give a student 4 years to get involved in local activities and community groups, perhaps a course or two from the community college. That student would certainly incur less debt; could the student possibly end up learning more as well?

The counterargument is that universities serve as gatekeepers, ensuring that you follow a logical developmental sequence and have learning peers at approximately the same intellectual level as yourself. Also, university provides a structured learning environment and a standard set of expectations. But couldn’t an academic advisor perform essentially the same function? A high school student could visit an independent advisor who jointly suggests a variety of learning activities to get involved with to develop himself. If there were enough people, I’m sure an advisor could provide sensible advice for a well-balanced plan that gives the student autonomy without letting the young learner drown in a learning environment above his level.

Postscript: Ken Bain’s What the Best Colleges Do (mentioned in the review) sounds intriguing.