Is College 'Too Cheap'? Probably Not

Dan Ariely, a behavioral psychologist with experience teaching so-called Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, is interviewed on PBS about the price of college:

"It's too cheap. Look, the reality is that it's a real question about how we think about education. Colleges are expensive because they provide a lot. [...] It's basically a tremendous amount of people that are serving the students, and a tremendous amount of infrastructure."

At face value, what Ariely says makes sense. Colleges and universities are real things. They aren't conjured out of midair. They don't magically upload information into the brains of young students sitting in classrooms throughout the country. It takes money to make the traditional college experience happen, which is one reason why many remain hopeful about the promise of online education.

Ariely goes on to say that "in absolute terms," college is expensive, but the traditional college experience provides something that online education does not. One small example: Participation as a student online, despite the periods of time in which discussions take place live, is just not the same as sitting down one-on-one with the professor over a cup of coffee.

If you generally agree with what Ariely has to say, you have to admit that traditional colleges and universities still have value, no matter how expensive it may be, in absolute terms or not. And you would also admit that many students will continue to rack up huge amounts of student loan debt along their way to a degree, given the general consensus that college is the thing you have to do to find a job.

But finding a job that pays the bills (including the student loan payments) isn't guaranteed, even with a fancy college degree, which still might make it worth questioning the value of the traditional college experience. After all, a cup of coffee one-on-one with the professor probably isn't worth thousands in student loans - which generally cannot be discharged in bankruptcy - especially if the young student tends not to take advantage of the learning experiences college has to offer.

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