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Now & Then: "Is a College Education Still Worth the Price?"
March 25, 2012 - 8:00pm

Is a College Education Still Worth the Price? A Dean's Sobering Perspective by Richard Schwartz
Date Published:  January 2012

This is the first book I've read from The site, "publishes original nonfiction books and essays for Kindle, Nook, iPad and other popular e-readers. We concentrate on writings that are historically based but also have relevance for present day events with a focus on American History and European History." The tagline is "Good Writing. Serious Reading. Every Week." Why can't university presses do something like what is attempting?  

Is a College Education Still Worth the Price? costs $2.99. I'm not quite sure if a college education is worth the price (something on my mind as I'll be paying two sets of tuition in 2017), but I am sure that the Schwartz's book is well worth this investment. For 3 bucks, and an hour or so of your time, we could all be having a good debate on if I'll be getting my money's worth in paying that 2017 double tuition.   

It is fascinating, and heartening, that our best critics of higher ed come from within the system. We are a culture that prizes and rewards critical self-analysis.   Schwartz is an English professor at the University of Missouri, having previously served as "associate dean, dean, and twice as interim provost at Wisconsin, Georgetown, and Missouri." The main critiques that Schwartz offers of higher ed will not surprise anyone, although he presents his arguments with both passion and clarity. These critiques include:

Costs: Schwartz brings forward the familiar numbers of the rapid increase of tuition and fees, the decline of state support, and the growth in student loan burden. While familiar with the arguments in Why Does College Cost So Much?, Schwartz takes the more traditional view that costs have risen quickly because of the growth in non-academic services and staff. The best and the brightest applicants are the best off, as they can get into top schools that offer generous grants and subsidies (and have very high graduation rates). Beyond the most highly competitive (and wealthiest) institutions, the options for tuition assistance (and lowered student debt) decline as the probability of not finishing the degree in 6 years increases.

Quality: Citing evidence and arguments from Academically Adrift and other sources, Schwartz makes the argument that increasing enrollments have paralleled (or driven) declining educational outcomes. Outside of STEM fields, the value of a diploma has declined as standards of academic rigor have fallen. In accommodating an ever larger number of high school graduates, and not offering parallel vocational tracks, the value of a liberal arts degree has declined as the requirements of the degree evolved to match the skills (and interests) of all the new students.

So do we have any alternatives? For sake of argument, let us say that Schwartz is totally correct and that we've somehow gone down the wrong path in how we have chosen to set up postsecondary education in the U.S. We would be better off with investing in vocational and skill best education for the many, and a stripped down liberal arts focused (residential) education for the few. (A conclusion, by the way, that I do not share with Schwartz).

Do parents of near-future applicants have other choices? Can we vote with our wallets? Are there institutions that offer teaching focused faculty and small classes, but save money (and therefore keep tuition down) by ruthlessly limiting the number of non-academic staff and holding the line against building fancy dorms, student centers, athletic buildings, and research labs?  

Unfortunately, Schwartz does not visit these places - or report on there existence or absence. Lacking a model of an institution that "gets it right", it is hard to understand why the rest "get it so wrong."

Perhaps you know of schools that fit the criteria of a low-cost but high quality traditional residential institution? I appreciate Schwartz's passionate critique of higher ed, but I am ready to move beyond the negative and towards the concrete steps (and examples) most likely to bring about positive change. 

A tour of low cost / high quality campuses is the next book that I hope publishes.

What are you reading?


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