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Back to school

Is a university education worth paying for? the Guardian asked this week on the day A-level results came out. This question is doing the rounds. The Atlantic figures the next big US economic crash will be created by defaults on student loans. The Chicago Tribune panics about students' living expenses. The New York Times frets that you need a Master's degree to rise above minimum wage in a paper hat and calculates the return on investment of that decision. CNN Money mulls the debt load of business school.

The economic value of a degree is a good question with many variables, and one I was lucky not to have to answer from 1971 to 1975, when my parents paid Cornell $3,000, rising to $5,000, a year in tuition fees, plus living expenses. What's happened since is staggering (and foreseen). In 2011-2012, the equivalent tuition fee is $41,325. Plus living expenses. A four-year degree now costs more than most people pay for a house. A friend sending his kid to Columbia estimates the cost, all-in, for nine months per year at $60,000 (Manhattan is expensive). Times four. Eight, if his other kid chooses a similar school. And in ten years we may think these numbers are laughable, too: university endowments have fallen in value like everyone else's savings; the recession means both government grants and alumni donations are down; and costs are either fixed or continue to rise.

At Oxford, the tuition fees vary according to what you're studying. A degree comparable to mine starts at £3,375 for EU students and tops out at £12,700 for overseas students. Overseas students are also charged a "college fee" of nearly £6,000. Next year, it seems most universities will be charging home students the government-allowed maximum of £9,000. Even though these numbers look cheap to an American, I understand the sticker shock: as recently as 1998 university tuition was free. My best suggestion to English 13-year-olds is to get your parents to move to Scotland as soon as possible.

These costs, coupled with the recession, led Paypal founder Peter Thiel to suggest that the US is in the grip of an about-to-burst education bubble.

Business school was always a numbers proposition: every prospective student has always weighed up the costs of tuition and a two-year absence from their paid jobs against the improved career prospects they hoped to acquire. But those pursuing university degrees were always more of a mixed bag big enough to include those who wanted to put off becoming adults and who liked learning and being surrounded by smart people to do it with.

Is the Net the solution, as some suggest? A Russian at a party once explained her country's intellectual achievements to me: anyone, no matter how poor, could take pride in learning and improving their mind. Why couldn't we do the same? Certainly, the Net is a fantastic resource for the pursuit of learning for its own sake, particularly in the sciences. MIT led the way in putting its course materials online, and even without paying journal subscriptions there are full libraries ready for perusal.

It's a lovely thought, but I suspect it works best for those who are surrounded by or at least come from a culture that respects intellectual pursuits and that kind of self-disciplined application. My parents came from immigrant families and fervently believed in education as a way to a better life. Even though they themselves lacked formal education past high school they read a great deal of high-quality material throughout their lives; their house was full of newspapers, books, and magazines on almost every topic. My parents certainly saw a degree as a kind of economic passport, but that clearly wasn't the only reason they valued education. My mother was so ashamed that she hadn't finished high school that she spent her late 60s getting a GED and completing a college degree. At that age, she certainly wasn't doing a degree for its economic benefits.

The Net is a trickier education venue if you really do value learning solely in economic terms and what you need is the credential. If it's to become a substitute for today's university system, a number of things will have to change. Home higher education in at least some fields will need to go through the same process as home schooling has in order to establish itself as a viable alternative. Employers will need to find ways for people to prove their knowledge and ability. Universities will have to open up to the idea of admitting home-study students for a single, final year (distance learning specialists like the Open University ought to have a leg up here). Prestigious institutions will survive; cheap institutions will survive. At the biggest risk are the middle ones with good-but-not-great reputations and high costs.

Popular culture likes to depict top universities as elite clubs filled with arrogant, entitled snobs. The danger this will become true. If it does, as long as they continue to fill the ranks of politicians, CEOs, and the rest of the "great and good", that group will become ever more remote from the people they govern and employ. Bad news, all round.

Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.


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