Paul L. Caron

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Why We Are Looking at the ‘Value’ of College (and Law School?) All Wrong

Washington Post:  Why We Are Looking at the ‘Value’ of College All Wrong, by Christopher B. Nelson (President, St. John's College):

As college admission deadlines loom, new lists and rankings proliferate along with reports questioning the “value” of a college education. The obsession with quantification is rooted in a habit of applying economic categories to everything. Yet education and economics are essentially incompatible. The lens of economics distorts our judgment about the true worth of higher education. ...

[T]he idea that a college or university is a purveyor of information is a misplaced economic metaphor. Education is not information transfer. The educated college graduate is not simply the same person who matriculated four years earlier with more information or new skills. The educated graduate is a different person—one who has developed the innate human capacity for learning, to the point of controlling it. The educated graduate is an independent learner, able to seek out answers to whatever questions arise, and able to direct his or her own learning in accordance with the challenges that life presents in the circumstances of his or her own life.

The maturation of the student—not information transfer—is the real purpose of colleges and universities. Of course, information transfer occurs during this process. One cannot become a master of one’s own learning without learning something. But information transfer is a corollary of the maturation process, not its primary purpose. This is why assessment procedures that depend too much on quantitative measures of information transfer miss the mark. It is entirely possible for an institution to focus successfully on scoring high in rankings for information transfer while simultaneously failing to promote the maturation process that leads to independent learning.

We need to move away from easy assessments that miss the point to more difficult assessments that try to get at the maturation process. The Gallup-Purdue Index Report entitled Great Jobs, Great Lives found six crucial factors linking the college experience to success at work and overall well-being in the long term:

  1. at least one teacher who made learning exciting
  2. personal concern of teachers for students
  3. finding a mentor
  4. working on a long-term project for at least one semester
  5. opportunities to put classroom learning into practice through internships or jobs
  6. rich extracurricular activities

We should turn all our ingenuity toward measuring factors like these, difficult as that task might be, and use these results to push back against easy assessments based on the categories of economics. Unless we stop taking the easy way, unless we get past our habit of interpreting everything in economic terms, we will never grasp the true value of a college education.

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Would you be willing to take on full freight in loans to attend St. John's University, if you had to make the decision today? Would you be willing to make the same decision to attend St. John's law school?

If yes to either, would it be because you've reviewed the six criteria you've provided and concluded that it is a better measure of value?

Posted by: Commentator | Nov 5, 2014 5:34:02 PM

Education is valuable for its own sake. It is disingenuous to say the same about law school.
Even at a high price, a quality university education can turn you into a free thinker and allow you to realize your creative and intellectual potential. Law school -- not so much. It is trade school where playing hide the ball and engaging in technical onanism is celebrated. It does not liberate; it enslaves.

Posted by: Jojo | Nov 5, 2014 6:11:31 PM

Commentator, Dr.Nelson is the President of St. John's College in Annapolis which you seem to be confusing with St. John's University in NYC. St. John's College, which uses the Great Books curriculum and requires all of its students to study Greek and Latin, is arguably one of the best Liberal Arts colleges in the country. Yes, it is worth every penny to get an education of that caliber for those very reasons.

Posted by: Kevin | Nov 5, 2014 7:14:12 PM


I graduated from a liberal arts college considerably higher in the US News and other rankings than St. Johns. It doesn't mean anything anymore, because between the removal of corporate training programs everywhere and the automation of resume filtering, the only employers left who actually hire liberal arts majors are more or less those who employ the Cravath System. It is only slightly reductive to say that the worth it /not worth it line is drawn somewhere between Williams/Amherst and Bowdoin/Middlebury/everybody else; the former duo can place into Wall Street, K Street, and MBB while all other basically just lead you to underemployment or graduate school. A Business Studies major from UCONN has more options than the English or Poly Sci major from Wesleyan or Trinity; that's just the way the world is these days. The business major might slip by the HR robot overlords into an actual person's hand; the liberal arts major is auto-rejected.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Nov 5, 2014 8:36:16 PM

Unemployed N'eastern,
That's spot on. The naval gazers would not recognize the world if they left campus. The disconnect is even worst at the law school level. A torts professor would need a cultural anthropologist to accompany him to explain what was going on at a personal injury firm. The criminal law professor would just weep in criminal court.

We're in a world where merit and the values of the 1960s through 1980s no longer matter. Money in corporations (and in partnerships) flows to the powerful. It's no longer the founders and shareholders profiting from the system. It's management. They treat employees like fungible nuisances. HR is highly automated and hiring is done via check the box screening.

It's one thing to tout the value of education, which I agree it surely has, if it were cheap. But it's quite another to tout it at absurd prices. Value is a measure of what you get for a given price. It's quite proper to question the value of education, while acknowledging that it is an economic good.

Posted by: Jojo | Nov 6, 2014 7:20:00 AM