The Real Value of College

September 30, 2012

A professor recently described his attendance policy like this:

Attendance isn't required. However, if you don't show up to class you're losing a lot of money. Here's your yearly tuition. Now let's divide that by the number of classes a typical student takes in a year and then by the number of lectures this course has. One hundred dollars. You're losing $100 for every hour you don't show up to class.

By that logic, this is the yearly breakdown of my college tuition:

Library access: $0
Athletic facilities: $0
Online resources: $0
Student network: $0
Alumni network: $0
Company recruiters: $0
Homework/exams: $0
Office hours: $0
GPA: $0
Diploma: $0
Lectures: $43,380

I've heard the same argument from parents, colleagues, and yes, even students.

In reality, lectures themselves aren't worth much at all. If they cost $100 an hour, then why can anyone with internet access watch lectures from Harvard, Stanford, and MIT for free? How come I can watch one of my favorite teachers lecture about anything from Trigonometry to Art History without paying a cent?

Because real learning doesn't happen during lectures. It happens while trying to solve homework problems. It happens during discussions. It happens while studying for exams. The lectures are just a starting point.

Let's look beyond courses. You're not just paying for college so you can learn about a bunch of subjects. Success in life isn't determined only by what you know. It's determined to a great extent by who you know, how you present yourself, and how you deal with complex situations.

Very few of these skills are improved through courses, and definitely not during lectures. Many important aspects of life are based on interactions with other people. I'd argue that the most valuable aspect of college is the immense opportunity for social interaction.

That's half of what you're paying for. You're paying to have the full college experience, which is a combination of lectures, homework, exams, a GPA, dorms, athletic events, alumni, recruiters, resources, eventually leading up to a diploma.

When you get a $20 meal at a restaurant, does the actual food cost $20? Of course not. You're paying for people to take your order, cook your food, and bring it to you. You're paying for the expertise of an experienced chef. You're paying for the building and its utilities. You're paying for the atmosphere. You're paying for the whole experience of going out to eat. The cost of the food is a fraction of that $20.

Nobody argues that your entire check at a restaurant just pays for the ingredients. So why do people argue that your entire college tuition just pays for the lectures?