The value of 4-year degrees

By caitlinsmythe, 30 June, 2009

Jack Hough has written a fascinating article on the real value of a four-year university education, in terms of value spent and value gained.

Reducing a degree to a financial decision, Hough takes the example of two matriculants – one who earns a degree using a financial loan, and by the age of thirty-four, starts adding to an index fund. The second young candidate starts out working at eighteen, invests the money he would have used for university, peaks at a lower wage than his former classmate, but is able to invest in an index fund a full ten years earlier than his former classmate.

At sixty-five the pair meet up for a reunion, and the worker has nearly R10.4 million, while the university graduate has less than a third of that.

Naturally, your answer to his anecdote may be: Well, it depends on the person who is earning the money.

Recently, Dr Blade Nzimande mentioned that strict access in South African universities (only eighteen percent of SA matriculants gain access) is not a true reflection of national potential. Ahead of his budget speech, Nzimande announced that government is looking at ways to improve access and exemption figures.

But Hough comments: “The way to keep a thing valuable is to keep it scarce, so prestigious schools accept few. Government affordability initiatives -- grants, loans, tax breaks and the like -- puff up buying power against constrained supply, ballooning prices and creating the opposite of affordability. In the 10-year period ending in 2005, increases in tuition and fees outpaced inflation by 36% at private colleges and 51% at public ones.

“Consider the laid-off sales clerk who wishes to pursue a college education in hopes of finding a better job. If he wants to go to a name-brand school, he must study for and take an admissions test and apply. He must also file a financial-aid application as long and complex as a tax return. He then must wait and cross his fingers. If accepted by the school, he must wait again for the right part of the academic calendar to come around and hope that the classes he wants aren't full. Suppose all goes well. He'll be sitting in front of a teacher a good 18 months after first deciding to learn. What folly.

"The system must change before students are made poorer, society grows less equal, the bright are left ignorant and "college" comes to mean a four-year pajama party intruded upon by the occasional group discussion on gender studies. The answer is to relieve schools of the job of validating knowledge and return them to a role of spreading it. Colleges should no more vouch for their own academic competence than butchers should decide for themselves whether their meat is USDA prime."

Well worth the read.



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