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A Cynical Comment on the Future of College Prices

This is a comment on the Swail Letter on Education’s post: The Continuing Nightmare: Tuition and Fees will Double in Less Than 20 Years. The Swail Letter is a hard-hitting commentary on fundamental and unsustainable issues in higher education by my acquaintance Watson Scott Swail of the Educational Policy Institute.

I’m no economist, but am a parent with a “top 10″ graduating high school senior next Wednesday (insane California school year end date). To me it is obvious that (with respect to a traditional bachelor’s degree at a non-state-supported college) the market is simply in a logical process of increasing prices up to what the market will “bear”. Which means, up to a level ultimately where it becomes a coin-flip as to whether it’s better economically to attend college, at that price, or to go straight into the workforce. So, no more “good deals” on a college education. There used to be for sure, which is part of the frustration for my generation: I got two Physics degrees from UCLA for <$1,000 per year tuition+fees.

How could there be good deals in the future? Only if there is competition on price, which for major college brands there definitely is none of. And even then only if customers decide the lower-priced brands are worth paying less for. In the auto market, Hyundai cleverly built an offer and a brand to take market share at the low end of price. It took 25 years.

I must say “more power” to the following degree programs, but as parent in the market for an employee-boost for my child, and as a hiring manager, the brand of WGU or Straighter-Line or even ASU-online currently says: as a student I didn’t have what it takes to make it into a brand name, rigorous selection, high quality program.

Like driving a Kia to a first date might say to a potential future spouse: I don’t have much in the way of financial wherewithal.

School brands say a lot about us to others and especially to ourselves for our entire lives, we drape ourselves in our alma mater’s brand. The only doors out of this trap I see currently are for the “smartest money” to be perceived as following Peter Thiel’s lead and discounting the value of a traditional degree; focusing instead on acquiring and taking work-valued competencies to the market as fast as possible. Such that the future entrepreneurs, the smartest kids from high school and their parents, consciously choose and follow that de Facto Gates/Zuckerberg/Jobs path. And the next smartest money grits its teeth and discounts brand, working the system: get 1 year of credit while in high school. Get the sophomore year in at a community college. And then transfer into the closest cheapest nearby state-school for the last 2 years as a commuter student to get the sheepskin “badge” that’s required for any job. 5 years in if you play your cards right, the brand will fade in comparison to experience and accomplishments.

A 1988 Hyundai Excel did get you from A to B safely and on time. Cheaply.

However, I would bet then that based on demand, state school tuition goes up even faster than your doubling prediction of 17 years…it has a long way to rise before becomes an obviously bad financial deal!

And the $400k on-site private residential bachelors degree keeps its price point but is a luxury for the upper class, the 1%, and also for those who are deemed worthy of full-ride financial aid.

Under what scenario can anyone imagine multiple accessible and equivalently valued college brands start seriously competing on price like Toyota and Honda and Ford? I’d like to seriously know.

At least athletics are valued in America with plenty of scholarships, right?


My Premise: Learning is Sub-Optimal by a Factor of 1000x

Here is my basic premise, and driver: it is possible for the value of global human capital – that is, people problem-solvers and wealth-generators – to be increased by orders of magnitude.

The posts in this blog are motivated by this belief, and will explore it and illustrate it using dominantly my personal experience in context of the work at MIND Research Institute.

The billions of people on this planet are the solution to their problems, not the problem itself. Solutions come through people learning knowledge and skills which they can then creatively apply to problems. And learning can be:

  • 10 Times Faster
  • 10 Times Cheaper – for 10 Times more Reach
  • 10 Times More Effective, Deeper, and Better-Retained

I said people as “wealth” generators, and I mean wealth in the broadest terms: yes money, but also jobs creation, personal fulfillment, creative arts, free time, community health, personal happiness and satisfaction in the family and workplace.

By Faster I mean: reducing the number of minutes-on-task, and of calendar months, to reach a given performance level.

By Cheaper I mean: reducing Dollars per Learning.

By More Effective I mean: improving success rates for those who commence learning anything.

By Deeper I mean: gaining a substantial conceptual framework, and skills in recognizing patterns, which enable solving of non-standard, sophisticated, tricky problems. This is not a typical goal. Here’s a counter-example: a deep understanding of history is not the Jeopardy-winning ability to extract or match factoids of date, place, and name quickly out of one’s brain (note: a computer program called Watson recently beat the best human Jeopardy champions — of course).

By Better Retention I mean: retain beyond the formal assessment period. Whatever you don’t retain for effective re-use over the long-term (years), was a waste of time and resources to learn, and a rationalization of being able to re-learn it more quickly is extremely weak to the point of useless. Comedy show Saturday Night Live’s character Father Guido Sarducci makes this point, hilariously in “The Five Minute University.”

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