The Comforts of a Mediocre Education

It’s no secret that many colleges and prep schools are in financial trouble. Accrediting organizations predict a significant number of institutional failures in the next decade. We even feel the pain here in Vermont but, understandably, no one wants to discuss it, as any faint whiff of distress further discourages applications.

The college value equation has been eroding for decades. Total private college costs average $45,000 annually, $20,000 at in-state colleges. Accounting for payments, discounts and scholarships, average college graduates carry $37,000 worth of debt. And in return, according to the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) to which the U.S. subscribes, we rank thirtieth in math and nineteenth in science among the thirty-five sponsoring countries.

Access to a free and superior education was once the great promise of America. But cultural shifts in our country inevitably manifest themselves in our institutions. Our societal inclination towards comfort, entertainment, consumerism, and ourselves is displacing investments in educational excellence and mission.

And while the $65,000 price tag for our elite institutions may still serve those who can afford it, it does little to spread opportunity to others aspiring to the opportunities a great education enables. Many of our schools look like wealthy island resorts surrounded by a sea of poverty and economic decline. Income on non-profit college endowments isn’t taxed, representing a public tax expenditure at Princeton, for example, of almost $100,000 per student per year.

To combat application declines, colleges invest in amenities to attract more students. But these amenities inflate their carrying costs. Rich alums love building monuments to themselves at their alma mater, but almost never fund their monument’s ongoing expense.

To survive, education must refocus on teaching excellence. The cost of a new gym could easily endow twelve faculty positions, allowing deans to attract and hire the greatest educators in the world. But if colleges compete on amenities, they’ll continue to lose value and relevance. And if they continue to market amenities instead of great teaching and learning opportunities, we may not need them anyway.

When asked what I recall from my own education… gyms, dorms, shops, and student centers don’t come to mind. Instead, I remember the few outstanding teachers who intrigued and encouraged me to learn. They weren’t concerned about my comfort or self-esteem but instilled in me a life-long desire to learn. All the comfortable stuff I learned on my own.

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