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Can I Get A Refund For That Fine Arts Course?

December 6, 2011

I had been trying to collect my thoughts on what precisely resonated with me from Aaron Lanternman’s posts on, as he so eloquently put it, “taking the bulls*** out of a Bachelor’s degree”. I was always the sort of student at Georgia Tech that enjoyed the nontechnical classes as much or more as the technical classes. However, I could easily see that most of my fellow students didn’t share my viewpoints, and would have gladly had a few extra dollars in their pockets in order to not take those pesky Humanities and Social Sciences classes. And for my own part, a couple of the courses at Tech were a complete waste of my time, in particular the two-credit Technical Writing class where we learn to write memos (seriously, does anybody use those anymore?).

So when Aaron started writing about getting rid of useless courses from each degree, it certainly didn’t seem like a bad idea. But I think there’s a much larger argument that emerges from his train of thought, and I’d like to take the time to present it here, if I can.

My main argument is this: College is not accountable for teaching you anything. College is supposed to be the indispensable tool for a successful career, but there is zero accountability that the money you spend on college gets you anything.

Now to justify all of this – if you continue reading.

First of all, it’s important to understand that college is a business. Whether a college is entirely privately funded or receives support from the state, and whether it’s non-profit or for-profit, every college will market and sell their services to consumers, attempting to deliver the best value proposition (or at least convince the consumer that they are in fact doing so). Unlike almost every other business, however, there are no guarantees in place for poor service.

Why is that? Let’s look at what colleges are actually selling you.

The fundamental idea driving education is that the customer is wrong; there are concepts and facts and algorithms the university knows that you, the individual student, do not know, and it’s the role of the university to teach these assorted data to you. You – the student – are asked to convince your parents and your banks and your scholarships to pay the university to give you merely the opportunity to spend the immense time and energy it takes to learn these ideas that you do not already know. It’s all up to you to make the most of your time in college; you’re just paying the college more and more money for the privilege of using their time and resources.

This model isn’t inherently unreasonable at a glance; after all, they’re only selling you resources, and it’s up to you to make the most of them. However, you – as the uneducated customer – are wrong, and herein lies the problem. You don’t know what the resources are you’ll need to use to succeed – it’s up to the college to supply them to you and tell you what you need to use. You don’t know whether you’ve been given every opportunity to succeed, or whether you’ve been set up to fail. It’s well within the power of the university to know this, of course. But there’s no incentive or obligation for the university to look into this whatsoever. Professors who fail half of their students are often brought before their Dean, and the Dean leaves that conversation thinking, “man, students are sure dumb these days.”

So any failure of the college or university to supply you with the resources you need to succeed can be explained in terms of dumb/unmotivated/subpar students. It may be that the college out of the goodness of its heart decides to police itself internally, but there’s nothing in the inherent structure of the business model that requires it.

There’s also an incredible problem here that colleges, since they are only selling the opportunity for success, aren’t actually responsible for your long-term success. That’s all you. And while the colleges can claim that they’re just selling the opportunity to succeed, I have yet to see a single piece of advertising that mentions that fact. Also, it’s important to note that every single college in the country (if not the world) has an admissions process to make sure that you’re good enough to succeed here. So if every student admitted to a college is deemed to have the potential for success, shouldn’t there be some incentive in the university business model for colleges to help students succeed?

Even worse – what if the admissions board messed up and admitted a student who wasn’t cut out for the university? The student struggles and eventually drops out, and potentially owes $25-50k in student loans depending on the college. They’ve gained nothing from the experience besides incredibly toxic debt. And unless our admissions boards across the country are the single most flawless group of individuals ever to grace this Earth and completely incapable of error, this has actually happened before. Where are the statistics on that?

Where are the refunds?

Then there’s the whole “hey, you got a job!” phase after graduation, where the college happily advertises your starting salary and timely graduation rate and promptly forgets about you the next year (except to ask for alumni donations, of course). To be fair, these metrics are used by U.S. News to rate the colleges. This is the “almost” in the “zero accountability” claim made above. Colleges are actually ranked in part by these numbers, and those rankings (supposedly) help determine the number of applicants. And one can argue that word of mouth is important as well, and that poor experiences at college will lead to lesser enrollment for that college (I will gladly accept this line of reasoning should anyone point me to a single piece of evidence suggesting this is the case). But besides all of that, there’s no liability or guarantee that you actually go anywhere with your Prestigious University Degree. Again, it’s entirely your responsibility. Which is incredibly strange when the tried-and-true argument for the liberal arts education America is so well known for is that “we teach you how to think, and that’s an education that will last you a lifetime”.

If I come back in 20 years and provide completely compelling evidence that no, this History of Chairs class I had to take to fill this requirement did *not* in fact contribute to my education in any way, can I get a refund for that?

I am not, contrary to what it may seem, arguing that the college experience is inherently valueless. I am arguing that as far as I can tell, there is almost no accountability built into the system or the business model. There’s no shortage of kids who are told they should go to college. Institutes like the Southern Education Foundation are predicting the need for millions of new college degrees by 2020 just to keep up with demand. But on an individual basis, there’s nothing that any one student can do to try and get any sort of compensation for a subpar experience, because it’s all their fault if they do it wrong. And on an aggregate basis, colleges don’t seem to have any adverse affects based on their performance. You will never beat out Harvard from the U.S. News rankings, because those rankings were constructed with Harvard in mind (but that’s an entirely different subject best saved for later).

So that’s my complaint about education for the day. What’s yours?

-Steve

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