College: slouching toward consumption.

Many people find it strange to realize that higher education spending is classified as a consumption item by the government. Clearly it seems much more naturally classified as an investment. We’re cultivating human capital here. Or at least that’s the proximate reason we come to college.

Yet it’s increasingly clear we’re getting ripped off (or maybe we’re ripping off our future employers?). David Brooks is worried that the lack of measurement in collegiate level educational outcomes is going to doom our higher education system.

There’s an atmosphere of grand fragility hanging over America’s colleges. The grandeur comes from the surging application rates, the international renown, the fancy new dining and athletic facilities. The fragility comes from the fact that colleges are charging more money, but it’s not clear how much actual benefit they are providing.

This is absolutely true insofar as Brooks is concerned with a few core outcomes: critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing. These are from “Academically Adrift,” which Brooks leans on for his assertion that students simply seem to not be learning. He mentions a number of possible remedies, especially (*gasp*) standardized testing. That sounds anathema, but I’m not sure how else we can reach anything close to an objective assessment of learning outcomes that we can interpersonally and inter-temporally compare.

This won’t do, many of my peers cry. College is so much more than answers on a standardized test. It’s four years of incredible experience. We grow as humans. We love, we laugh, we cry. Many travel to foreign lands and do varying degrees of studying there. We network with future leaders in business and politics. We get to see some awesome entertainment events that come to universities to capitalize on scale, especially sports. We also learn a few intellectual things along the way.

This kind of experience is very meaningful for people. But it’s hard to value and definitely hard to assess. Also, its value lies with the student, and not with future employers. However, what we do know is that this kind of life experience might be one of the most valuable things money can buy. This I now turn over to Garrett Jones, who argues persuasively to me that memory ought to be classified as a consumer durable.

People often shrink from driving to a distant, promising restaurant, flying to a new country, trying a new sport–it’s a hassle, and the experience won’t last that long. That’s the wrong way to look at it. When you go bungee jumping, you’re not buying a brief experience: You’re buying a memory, one that might last even longer than a good pair of blue jeans.

Psych research seems to bear this out: People love looking forward to vacations, they don’t like the vacation that much while they’re on it, and then they love the memories. Most of the joy–the utility in econospeak–happens when you’re not having the experience.

One more thing he says: we should accumulate memory as much as we can when we’re young. It’s durable. You get more years to enjoy it the younger you get it. And since it’s the original experience is ephemeral, you don’t get bored of it like many other purchases you buy. It doesn’t lose it’s shine.

Jones doesn’t mention higher ed, but it seems like the perfect candidate to me for this kind of spending. Increasingly, it appears that a justification for college by college students is the accumulation of a treasure trove of memories they intend to cherish. These memories make them happy, and they believe that the experiences they remember helped them to flourish, which makes them all the more gratifying.

I don’t see this is a retort to Brooks though. College has traditionally been an investment in one’s personal human capital. For those who are looking at a person and measuring up the value of their education, they are still likely to be solely interested in how much they learned. I think we can increasingly see college today as having both a consumption and investment component. We’re building our knowledge, and we’re buying memories. Those are memories that mean something to us, and they are instrumental — we get to signal our status in society by sharing our collegiate memories. They pay huge dividends. Almost no one except prospective employers cares what you got out of college other than knowing that you went, and finished, and feel good about it. This unlocks productive dinner conversations with people of privilege who can advance us even further in life.

That’s well and good. But it doesn’t change the fact that the proximate reason for college — to learn — is not being delivered upon. Learning, monetarily, happens to be the most valuable part. Memories have value, but knowledge is what delivers humans to the highest paid levels of the modern service economy. So with college cost inflating, and students increasingly substituting out the most valuable aspect of college for the more temporally gratifying, but subsidiary component, something’s not adding up. What I believe Brooks is saying is that actual transparency about how college is delivering on the things future employers value will help bring that equation into balance. I tend to agree. Without the data, employers can still perform their own assessments, but often take our intellect for granted. We’re screwing them with every marginal increase in beer consumption at the expense of study hours, even as college becomes more and more about professional accreditation. We’re laughing all the way to the bank.

I think my peers would actually agree as well, even though they don’t want to. Like I said, it feels intuitively wrong to call college a consumption purchase. On some level, we know what we’re supposed to be here for. If things keep going along this trajectory, though, college will authentically be pure consumption before long. That means it’s value lies almost solely with the consumer.


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