Bigger Bang for the Buck

For many years the ranking of colleges has been associated with U.S. News and World Report and Harvard, MIT, Princeton and Stanford revolving in the top spots.  Wisely or unwisely these rankings have been given great weight in the public mind.  Whether accurate or not, these schools have been credited with the excellence of the education offered in the arts, sciences and particular professions.

Recently, the focus of education has been shifting from the past value placed on liberal arts to an emphasis on science and technology.  But with the high cost of education and mounting student debt incurred in the pursuit of higher education, greater value is now being placed on how education translates or can translate into higher earnings.

Reflecting this shift – perhaps even being part of the cause – President Obama admonished those who do the ranking for their focus on Ivy League schools.  Critical of their approach in determining excellence he spoke out publicly saying, “Rate them on who’s offering the best value so students and taxpayers get a bigger bang for their buck.”

Falling in line, Money Magazine has now released college rankings based more on return on investment.  Their goal is to give students and parents better information about which colleges will provide real value for tuition dollars and enhance a student’s earning potential.  The top school on the list is Babson College in Massachusetts that offers only one degree, a bachelor’s in business.  Increasingly, the value of education is determined by how it is translated into dollars in the future – not only dollars in themselves but also specific routes to earning those dollars.

There is nothing wrong with going to business school, but this presupposes that a high school senior is clear about the future direction in which he or she would like to move.  This leaves no room for personal growth or expanding interests and negates the idea that education is for any purpose other than maximizing one’s income.  Nor does it allow for the kind of creativity that when given room to blossom may lead not only to a more fulfilling life but also often to lucrative ends.  Think Steve Jobs or others like him who had to leave school to follow their true passions.

The changing purpose of education seems in part related to a recurring idea that issues of poverty and economic inequality are to be solved by education.  Added to concern about rising inequality in our own country is concern about global competition and comparison to the apparent educational superiority of other countries.  Although a hallmark of our culture is individualism, increasingly education is being asked to serve ends other than the growth of the individual student.  And yet it is the creativity nurtured by education in the past that has been a source of much noted national strength.

In a fascinating book by Eric Liu, “A Chinaman’s Chance: One Family’s Journey and the Chinese American Dream,” he writes that he cannot recall his parents ever telling him to study harder, demanding that he get great grades or impressing on him the need to excel in all things.  They were not “what today would be called ‘Tiger parents’.”  What he remembers is an “unstated sense that when you’re capable of doing well – by talent and/or circumstance – you should simply do well.”

He also takes issue with Amy Chua (the Tiger Mom”) and Jed Rubenfeld who in their book. “The Triple Package,” say success is simply a matter of culture.  Their theory  would argue that Eric Liu has achieved because of a civilization superiority complex and ability to defer gratification created by his Chinese culture.  His own argument is that by ascribing primary importance to ethnic culture one can easily overlook the fact that “the most powerful generator of poverty and disadvantage is poverty and disadvantage, and that wealth and advantage are similarly self-reinforcing.”

Liu says that while he has worked hard for his achievements he was born with advantages.  Although not having grown up wealthy he had a lot he could take for granted, staring with a family history of success and skill.  He writes that he “began [his] American life with a nice allotment of opportunity.”  The question he raises for America is why more Americans, Chinese or otherwise, do not have the allotment he had, and he asks why access to opportunity is actually narrowing.

Liu’s point is that our success as a nation will not be measured by whether our GDP is greater than China’s but by the degree to which we manage to break up monopolies of opportunity in our own country.  We can be made to think that our lots, good or bad, are simply what we’ve earned. Yet there is far more talent here than is ever noticed or activated.

The question for parents is whether the education of their children takes notice and activates their talents.  This is where parents must believe in their children and be their advocates.  At least one Chinese American doesn’t see the “Tiger Mom” route as the way to go.  Dollars may not be the most valuable “bang for the buck” after all.