It was the first week of school, sophomore year of college. I’m sitting in a 300+ person lecture for a math course required for my business degree.
In walks the TA (teacher’s aide). And it’s his first lecture. A new TA for a 300-person lecture? This is odd, I thought. Turns out he’s leading the course. And English is not his first language. And as hard as I try, I just cannot follow what he is saying.
I may have been young, but not young enough to know a ripoff when I saw it.
I went back to my dorm room, consulted with the parents, and within a few days was enrolled to take the same course at a local community college – at a fraction of the price. The credit would transfer over to my degree at the university.
Day one at the community college: in walks a doctoral professor. Not only is he an experienced professor, but it turns out English is his first language – AND – come to find out, he’s also a professor at the same higher-priced university whose class I just dropped and he teaches the exact same course I just dropped. The community college gig is a side income for him. At the same time, I can pretty much ask any question and get any personal attention I want, because the student headcount dropped from 300 to about 20.
Certainly, this supreme upgrade in educational experience would cost me more, right?
Well, if the spread in price then was similar to what it is today:
- University: $420.75
- Community College: $81
Then… wait, it was less than 20% of the cost?! Is this some kind of sick joke?!
Let’s recap that real quick:
- More qualified and experienced instructor.
- Student/teacher ratio dropped from 300-to-1 to 20-to-1.
- Credit hour transferred over to the University.
- Price dropped by over 80%.
When I figured this out, I felt guilty/dumb for taking any/every course that I took at the university that I could have taken at a community college instead.
Why was I doing this? Why would anyone do it?
The College Experience Debate
Every now and then a friend or work acquaintance will start a conversation about the cost of college.
Most of my friends are in their 20’s or 30’s, so they have graduated college not too long ago. And usually the context of the conversation is about kids (since many of them are newly minted parents or about to become one) and how much it will cost them to send their kids off to college.
A 4-year public in-state university education costs $50,000 these days. And that doesn’t even include room, board, meal plan, books, other fees – which should at least double that cost.
What will it be in 20 years when they send their kids off to school?
Well, if we look at how education inflation (@ 7% annually for the past few decades) has quadrupled the price of an education over the last 20 years and project that forward? You’re looking at a cool $200 Grand, $400 G’s with room/board. No amount of 529 Plan hoarding is going to cover that.
Everyone seemingly comes to an agreement: that’s quite ridiculous.
But then someone reminds us all why the ridiculousness is worth it: THE COLLEGE EXPERIENCE.
Ahhhh, yes… under-age drinking, the more than occasionally awkward pursuit of the opposite sex, unhealthy cafeteria gastro-nightmares, miserably out-dated-stuffy-nasty-germ ridden dorm rooms – all at $420 per credit hour – with no f’ing clue what I want to be when I grow up. How could I have forgotten?!
Now, don’t get me wrong, setting a bunch of drunken, horny students on the loose, away from their parents for the first time ever, can result in some fun college experiences.
But would I have been any less of a person today without that experience?
Or what if I had simply gone to community college for the first two years, focused on my studies entirely (and possibly even gotten a scholarship as a result), and then had all my cheap credit hours transfer over to the University, basically cutting my college costs in half in the process, while still giving me the same piece of paper that got me the job I have today and still allowing for two years of drunken college adventures?
Sure, some things in life would be different. But it’s hard to say those who follow that path are worse off than the 4 or 5-year plan. Particularly if they have $25-$50k less in student loan debt.
I can tell you this much – just about everything I learned at University is irrelevant to what I do in my job today. And most people feel the same way. So when this debate surfaces, the ONLY rational argument is “the college experience”.
And while those two extra years of college experience might have justified the cost in 1970 or 1990 – you’re going to have a hard time convincing me it does in 2013 or will in 2025.