Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Sewanee and the value of higher education

If you consider Steve Jobs (college dropout), Warren Buffett (Univ. of Nebraska), and Sarah Palin, youngest person ever to be elected governor of Alaska (Univ. of Idaho), you might wonder about the value of an expensive undergraduate education. It’s hard to imagine these talented, charismatic leaders being any more successful if they had gone to Yale. Would the iPad be any thinner if Jobs had stayed in college? Probably never been invented.

On a personal note: I did stick it out for four full years at the very college Jobs abandoned. Would I have been better off leaving early as he did? Okay, never mind. Don't imagine my life as a drop-out. Professional kite flier at 19. Extended disability at 22. Card dealer at 40. Magazine distributor at 41. Speechwriter for Senator Harry Reid at 42. It would have been a grim trajectory.

Fact is, I often look back on the years I plodded up the rungs of higher education – all the while dulling my mind and perfecting my jump-shot – as time that would have been better spent in, say, an Oregon cannery. At least there I would have had time to choose what I needed to learn rather than be told what I had to study. Glory be to the cultural heritage of Western Civilization! – but exposing me at 18 to a book by Emmanuel Kant was like putting a Stradivarius in the hands of the Three Stooges.

It’s boorish to deny the worth of liberal arts study. But here’s the question – at what price? Today – in whispers and in shouts – Americans are questioning the value of a four-year term at an esteemed, high-priced college. It’s worth something, sure. But how much? And how much compared with what’s offered at Brand X College?

The University of the South – known as Sewanee – is an exclusive, high-priced liberal arts college that recently made national headlines: It lowered next year’s tuition by ten percent, knocking about 4500 bucks off the cost of a year’s study. Instantly Sewanee became more accessible to some families – and more price-competitive than similar colleges.

Malcolm Gladwell – author of Blink – just ranked the nation’s top law schools and produced this: 1: Chicago 2: BYU 3: Harvard 4: Yale 5: Texas 6: Virginia 7: Colorado 8: Alabama

Gladwell’s methodology was eccentric but logical: He took into account something USA Today never considers: price. For the price, says Gladwell, you get a better deal at BYU Law School than you do at Harvard or Yale.

Does this methodology factor in the brand value of an Ivy League name? If BYU grads wind up in good law firms for less money – then I suppose it does.



Anonymous said...

It's a tricky equation, because Ivy Leaguers who are highly successful will credit their expensive choice for "making all the difference." Conversely, state-schoolers who achieve identical success might wonder how much further they could have gone if "the right doors" had been opened by elite school credentials. It's all very mysterious because no one goes through life twice (that I know of). As you note, though, the more value any university provides, and more satisfied graduates it sends out into the world, the more able it will be to strip the ivy off of some of those snobby institutions...

brandsinger said...

Thanks, Anonymous - Life holds a series of choices -- Steve Jobs dropped out of college and became Apple's visionary leader. That does not mean -– as much as we admire Jobs and Apple -- that such a path is right for everyone.

My point is that Americans are questioning the price-tag for higher education -- which is progress because it is an important step toward re-evaluating curriculum, hiring and teaching methods -- needed for the health of the system.

brandsinger said...

An old college roommate emailed me the following reply:

What you're trying to get across is deftly put. I agree with one of your main points, about parents paying through the nose for a brand-name U when a less expensive public U may be just as good for their kid.

On the other hand, a small-town branch of the Univesity of Idaho or a branch of the U of Hawaii off on one of the state's lesser islands might not have fully qualified teachers or dedicated fellow-students. Berkeley, yes, a community college up in Alaska in a town I can't pronounce, not really.

I'm referring, of course, to the knowledge base acquired by Sarah Palin in Hawaii, Idaho and Alaska. I was surprised to see her up there in your heaven alongside Jobs and Buffett. "Talented". In her own way, I guess. But the folks who had to prepare her for the VP debates were repeatedly appalled by her ignorance. Thinking Africa is a country is just one of many many examples. (I'm puzzled that, hormones aside, you like the woman: I recall your telling me at the Plaza that you're a social libertarian, whereas Sarah is quite the opposite.)

And hey, my memory is that you generally liked Reed: liked the small-class ambiance, liked hanging out in the perpetual rain with all these brainy neurotic kids in sandals, even liked pretending to have read Kant (well, certainly, I never actually read him, though I probably had an opinion about him the week of that Humanities 101 lecture that I missed. Despite which, I can STILL remember what Kant stood for, which Sarah can't. In fact, she'd probably guess Kant is a country.)

But then, George W. thought Kant was a hockey player. And George went to Yale.

Jerri said...

I enjoyed your article except the mention of Palin who still doesn't have a brain in her head just greed for money and power. u don't have to go anywhere to graduate from that.

brandsinger said...

Thanks for the comment Jerri -
I wrote that Palin is talented, charismatic and successful. There are certainly other qualities (including that annoying voice!) -- and she is wildly ambitious. She might be poorly educated and even ignorant. But do you think she is not talented, charismatic and successful? What about Trump? Sheen? Obama? Oprah? In different degrees, all have talent, an undeniable magnetism, and success.

And all are polarizing figures.

Brandsinger said...

I consider that people must have experience in order to assume those responsibilities, well if that person is totally prepared for that go ahead.