In the first part of this article, I talked about President Obama’s challenge to colleges to bring affordability and value into their higher education models. One problem that goes along with such a challenge is that “value,” when applied to a college education, is an awfully subjective term, and unless the President defines exactly what he means by it, I think that there will be a whole bunch of different types of value out there.
In the second part of this article, we’ll take a look at some assumptions regarding affordability. A lot of people who have something to say about the affordability of college seem to think, in essence, that if it were cheaper to go to college, there would be a greater demand for it. Hopefully, it’s been relatively clear on this blog: the demand for college has been steady. In fact, during the years of tuition increase, corresponding with the worst years of the recent recession, college enrollment also rose.
The problem with affordability isn’t student demand for college, but rather: what happens to the students who have to borrow ridiculous amounts of money to attend; and price is a deterrent for some students who just simply decide it’s not worth it — students who may otherwise go on to greatness. And, ultimately, what makes college “worth it”?
Therein lies the trouble with President Obama demanding affordability. As Alison Byerly noted in a piece from Inside Higher Ed, the families who are sending their kids to colleges are not demanding cheaper tuition. They just want a discount off the existing cost of the college.
Byerly goes on to say that
Ultimately, many families understand what many higher ed commentators do not: that the link between price and “value” in college tuitions is already so tenuous as to seem wholly arbitrary. This is not because colleges get away with charging too much. It is because they already charge too little. The market price of a product is always somewhat arbitrary, as it reflects what people are willing to pay rather than a product’s actual production cost, let alone some intrinsic value. But what other commodity is routinely offered at a cost substantially less than the price of production, and then discounted again based on the consumer’s ability to pay? At the most expensive colleges, the cost per student is thousands higher than the tuition price, and the endowment already subsidizes every single student, even those paying “full freight.”
So, if the idea behind affordability and value in a college education is purely economic, anyone with a degree got the value they paid for at whatever cost they were willing to pay. Byerly doesn’t think it’s that simple, and neither do I. Clearly, the value of an education is far more than the economic measure of its cost mixed into a blender with your future earnings, etc. Intangibles such as community involvement, self-esteem, value back to the college, even the type of person who is willing to marry you can all be affected not only by whether you have a college degree, but what degree you have and where it’s from.
Contrary to what President Obama seemed to be implying — but I kind of hope he wasn’t because I’d like to think that whoever our president is that he’d be more insightful than that — affordability of an education is not directly related to the value of an education. The flip side of this coin is the skyrocketing costs to attend the “elite” schools as they battle each other for rankings, which determine their “value” in terms of attracting students and, to some extent, research dollars. In the eyes of many people, the higher cost equates directly with how valuable the degree is.
The example Byerly uses to illustrate the silliness of this concept is that a fully-funded undergraduate degree at Harvard or Yale would essentially be worthless if value correlated directly with price.
Clearly, what needs to happen, in light of the President’s mandate, is a lot more definition of terms and a lot of room for subjectivity. Without these them, neither the value nor the affordability of college will change in the near future.