Wednesday, January 26, 2005

The opportunity costs of college 

I recall my parents sending me to summer school during my pre-teen years once to learn typing. I thought it was useful but with a high opportunity cost: I wanted to play golf instead. (The local muni course had junior memberships for the princely sum of $40 back in 1969.)

Chad the Elder writes about a marvelous essay in National Review Online called "Typing Alone".

People often ask why Minnesota seems to be such a hotbed of blogging. In addition to the Northern Alliance of Bloggers, there a number of other high-quality blogs based in the North Star State. Various theories have been offered to explain the phenomena.

Our own Saint Paul believes that it's due in large part to the mediocre writing talent (with a few notable exceptions) and overt political biases of the local media, in particular the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Others have claimed that it's because of the less-than-stellar weather, a theory similar to one often used to explain the number of successful rock bands that emerged from the Pacific Northwest during the heyday of grunge. The reasoning was that it was too crappy to do anything outside, so people were driven indoors where they honed their musical acumen.

That's an opportunity cost argument. If I could be back on the links with a $40 golf membership, there might be no Scholars. So too is Mark Oppenheimer's explanation for students who used to type novels out to learn touchtyping but don't anymore.
Fry's memory of teaching himself to type by working through Wodehouse is emblematic of one kind of college life lived, the one that Camille Paglia describes as her education alone in the stacks of Yale University's Sterling Library, the education that Philip Larkin got with his fellow poets in small literary clubs at Oxford University. It's an education made possible by free time, gotten by those students who go to class but otherwise do not clutter their lives with extracurricular activities. By contrast, what Grafton describes, the independent study or senior essay, is in some ways a small sampling of that education, one term or one year spent trying out the life of the mind, giving it a test run, perhaps to figure out if one is suited to graduate school, which offers the concentrated academic experience that busy undergraduates almost never have anymore.

On many campuses, including mine, students are engaged in many tasks. We can try to tell them they cannot be both full-time students and full-time employees at some retail box, but when the return to a college education is this high, people cut other time to make it work. At the same time, technology has made the value of leisure greater: I now use a device that allows me to record and timeshift not only television but internet radio; my news reading is aggregated to save time; my car's stereo not only has six CDs at one time but the ability to skip songs and program just what I want. All of which is to say: the monastic life is more expensive than it used to be.
Thus does the space for single-minded purposefulness � for typing over a Wodehouse novel, or reading the Wodehouse corpus, following a single interest until it is exhausted, and sacrificing other opportunities along the way � thus does that space shrink ever more. Born physicists are forced to master a bit of German, poets are required to study calculus � one never hears this ideal of well-roundedness questioned. It is gospel that we all must be minimally conversant with a dozen subjects, even as fewer and fewer students are deeply knowledgeable in, say, American history or Latin. We lament the decline of knowledge, but well-roundedness, often in the guise of the "liberal" education, is one culprit.

But at the same time, we can drill down to the parts that interest us more easily than before. Perhaps one of the reasons for well-roundedness in the past was that an hour spent studying calculus was more valuable to a poet when she could not scan the web for the verses of 15th century Persian writers, translated into English, with commentary. Again, it's a question of opportunity costs. If the technology of learning has improved, the returns to well-roundedness may have decreased.
I believe in a college life that, if it does not permit time to type out a Wodehouse novel, at least allows time to turn in the homework that Robert Stone deserves. I can make some suggestions toward that end: drastically curtail grade inflation, as students in danger of getting a C will drop their extraneous activities; give special scholarships to students excellent in one activity; increase funding for students' summer research; decrease funding for athletics and other student activities, and put the money into financial aid so that poor students don't need as much part-time work. None of these suggestions will go very far, however. Maybe we need better, braver teachers, who publish less, teach more, and are unafraid to offend � role models.

Ending grade inflation might change that, though they might just drop the classes or drop out. And financial aid changes one's income without changing opportunity costs, particularly for the Yalies and Princetonians.

And "better, braver teachers"? Role models? That would be nice, but around them they have students in ROTC, students who are already entrepreneurs, students who are raising families and going to school nights. Those are role models for most students. If they need role models to live the monastic academic life, they should go to monasteries.