Higher Education: Too Good a Deal?

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Synopsis

This article considers the possibility that higher education is such a good deal that students value it less.

One rather sad fact about higher education is that it is one area where, as I heard a comedian say, the customer wants to get as little for her money as possible. This is demonstrated quite nicely by the relatively low attendance rates in many classes and the fact that students often fail to avail themselves of office hours.

Being a professor, I have often thought about why this is the case. Part of it, obviously enough, seems to be the nature of the American education system – it seems almost intentionally designed to be a boredom factory.  Another part is that professors are not trained to entertain and hence we are ill equipped to compete with the media smorgasbord offered by the internet and television.  A third part is that students have found that they can get by without actually putting in much effort and they generally do not see much value in putting in the effort beyond what is needed to get by. In this students differ not at all from the rest of the population – try to think of how often you encounter excellence and people going above and beyond in their endeavors.  While I could keep going with various factors, the last one I will present is that higher education is often a pretty good deal.

This assertion might, on the face of it, seem insane on two grounds.  First, it seems like madness to claim that students would be less inclined to get more out of education because it is a good deal.  Second, it might seem beyond insanity to claim that education is actually a good deal – after all, the cost of higher education is supposed to be absurdly high these days.  However, since I enjoy seeing people argue against my mad claims, I will endeavor to argue for both of these.

On the face of it, people should be more attracted to good deals than inferior deals. After all, its seems eminently rational to want to get more for less. However, what seems rational and what people do tend to be two rather different things. To illustrate this, consider the matter of free stuff. On the face of it, people should be very drawn to what is free. After all, they are getting something for nothing. While this can hold true in some cases (for example, people grabbing free swag at expos or free samples at stores) the opposite often holds true. For example, free events often fail to attract as many people as the same sort of event that is not free would attract.

A rather plausible explanation is that people value their time and hence that will always be a cost, even for free stuff. So, if an event takes time, a person will presumably consider if the event is worth their time. An event that is available for free can be thus seen as lacking value (after all, if it was a worthwhile event, surely people would charge for it). So, people will be less inclined to participate in a free event.

In the case of higher education, it is not free. However, if it is seen as relatively low cost for the student, s/he might not see attending class or going to office hours as worth the cost in his/her time. After all, the loss of not attending class or office hours is seen as being less than the loss of attending class or going to office hours. To use a rather specific example, consider the case of a student who works. If she is in class or at my office hours talking about philosophy, then she is not working and getting her hourly wage. As such, attending my class or going to my office hours is a loss for her. Of course, if she fails the class, then this a loss – but this can be avoided by putting in just enough effort to pass. Thus, the student can have both-getting the credit hours to graduate and also getting as much time as possible for other things, such as work or Facebooking.  If, however, the class or office hours were very costly, then students might thus be more inclined to attend. After all, missing the class or office hours would cost more than what would be gained by skipping class.

Another point well worth considering is that although the class (and office hours) might have a high cost, this need not be paid by the student. So, if the student is attending college at the parents' or states' expense, then they do not "feel" that cost and hence they have less motivation to attend class since any alternative will tend to give them more perceived value for their time.  Naturally this is not always the case-some students do value their class time even when they are not paying the majority of the educational bill.

I now turn to the second point, that higher education is a rather good deal.

Back in 2009 I fell from my roof and tore my quadriceps tendon. The repair surgery took about 40 minutes and I was in the hospital only a few hours (most of which was spent waiting). The bill was about $11,000.  While this is an extreme example, people routinely pay hundreds or even thousands of dollars per hour for experts such as psychiatrists, doctors, politicians, lawyers, mechanics, plumbers, and so on. People often wait a long time for appointments and then wait even more when the appointment time arrives. While folks complain, they do seem to value these services.

In the case of higher education, a student typically is guaranteed about three hours of access to a professor per week in class and also there are office hours open to all students. These days students also expect email access to faculty – I get emails around the clock from students. While students sometimes have adjuncts or graduate students as professors, at my university the vast majority of classes are taught by professors with terminal degrees (usually a doctorate) who are experts in their fields. Since a semester is 16 weeks long, that means that a student gets access to a top professional for about 40 hours a semester (not including office hours, emails and phone calls). Even with the rising cost of education, this seems like a rather good deal for the students – perhaps so good that it causes students to undervalue education. After all, how many people pay a plumber, medical doctor or engineer and simply fail to avail themselves of the time they paid for?

Of course, a viable alternative hypothesis is that educators like myself are, in fact, offering far less value than we believe. If so, perhaps students are wise to miss our classes and avoid our office hours because they could always be doing something far more valuable with their time, such as Facebooking about how useless their classes are.

 

Tags: college, economics, education, philosophy, university

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