Can we sell a good undergraduate degree for $10,000?

Dylan Matthews has an interesting discussion of a plan by Anya Kamenetz, you can read an outline of the plan here.  The upshot of her approach is that an entire degree can be done for 10k per student.  There is much in the plan I have sympathy for, and I do think higher education could be much cheaper and still serve most of its useful functions.  That said, I consider this specific proposal to involve some overselling.

Let me just pick up on the single sub-proposal closest to my life:

She [Kamenetz] would also abolish the major of “business,” the single most popular undergraduate major, but perhaps also the least rigorous, and which produces relatively poor-achieving students. Instead, she’d fold practical business classes into the economics major.

Let’s just, for the sake of argument, accept the premise of the business major being less rigorous at many schools.  I would not make such an incendiary claim myself, certainly not about my own school, but this is an exercise in logic, not empirics.

OK, so at many schools below the top, what would happen?  It would be simple: many of the former or would-have-been business majors would not be able to pass the mid- or upper-level classes of the economics major.  What then?

You can flunk out the less scholastically oriented business majors, which is probably not a good idea.

Or you could make all of those economics classes much easier, which is also probably not a good idea.  The better students lose out and the whole major becomes worth less money and also less prestigious for the school.  In essence you end up abolishing the economics major.

Or you can push the former business majors into some other easy major (communications? education?…those are againt purely hypothetical examples, please put aside the empirics).  That’s not the end of the world, but then the point of the exercise is less than clear.  If a lot of students want to be business majors, is it such a big educational gain to shovel them into some major they perhaps do not want and may also be less marketable?

The most likely outcome would be the creation of a multi-tiered economics major, with a harder track and easier track, labeled accordingly, a bit like the B.S. vs. the B.A., though different in the details.  Again, that is hardly the end of the world, and maybe the idea is worth considering, but at this point we must again ask where are the gains.  I have an idea: let’s call the less rigorous economics track the business major.  Or in the interests of the fig leaf producers, how about the business economics major?  The reality is that many schools do combine economics and business and they don’t seem to achieve major competitive or cost advantages in doing so; in fact they may be more likely to encounter clashes of mission and disagreements over what kind of faculty to hire.

(Are there big gains in overhead reduction from consolidating these two departments?  I don’t see it.  And note that some business schools which contain economics departments are broken down into “groups,” sometimes with semi-autonomous status to limit conflict and transactions costs, and that is going to bring back some overhead costs.)

And so on.  Many parts of such proposals cannot be readily translated into reality, at least not a reality where the cost of a four-year degree sinks to 10k total.  A big problem with a lot of “good ideas” for education is simply that (in various hypothetical universes) the students are not up to them.


Comments for this post are closed