500. What Exactly Is College For?

    Personal growth can be achieved through any means and should be taken seriously, regardless of background or education. Good judgement is more important than strict adherence to rules.

    en-usApril 21, 2022

    About this Episode

    We think of them as intellectual enclaves and the surest route to a better life. But U.S. colleges also operate like firms, trying to differentiate their products to win market share and prestige points. In the first episode of a special series, we ask what our chaotic system gets right — and wrong. (Part 1 of “Freakonomics Radio Goes Back to School.”)

    🔑 Key Takeaways

    • Investing in higher education leads to higher earnings, better job satisfaction, and improved health insurance. With declining enrollment rates, society may experience increased income inequality, making education an essential component for economic stability and growth.
    • College is important for both personal growth and societal benefit, but its competition and profit-making nature must be balanced with its role in reducing income inequality.
    • Schools and universities compete through differentiation, with tuition prices being a major factor. The U.S. has top universities despite higher tuition, while European countries prioritize free or capped tuition through deliberate design.
    • Elite US universities have specialized graduate training models and rely heavily on research funding from wealthy alumni and federal grants, with the government offering tax breaks to support institutions like Stanford.
    • Education should be accessible to everyone regardless of income. Merit-based scholarships can level the playing field for deserving students who may not have had equal opportunities otherwise.
    • Mid-tier schools like Hofstra and CUNY are better at helping students from non-wealthy backgrounds achieve upward income mobility compared to elite schools. Improving accessibility and resources at mid-tier schools can benefit a larger portion of students seeking better life outcomes.
    • Community college students face obstacles in obtaining their degrees, with limited resources and lower graduation rates compared to four-year colleges. For-profit private schools may provide better career outcomes for low-income students.
    • H.B.C.U.s have been successful in promoting income mobility and producing a significant percentage of Black graduates in STEM fields. These schools provide a contrast to elite institutions and community colleges, and have received recent investments from the Federal government and philanthropists.
    • Education and supportive teachers can help individuals overcome societal obstacles and achieve their dreams. Broadening perspectives through education can lead to empathy and acceptance of different cultures.
    • Education, from early childhood to college, has the potential to transform individuals and society by teaching critical thinking, problem-solving, and social awareness. College education provides significant benefits beyond economic returns, including exposure to diversity and different perspectives that foster empathy and understanding. Education can empower individuals and communities to create meaningful change in today's challenging societal context.
    • HBCUs prioritize success for all students, resulting in higher numbers of successful Black graduates in STEM, law, medicine, and government. Quality education is vital for personal and societal success.
    • Personal growth can be achieved through any means and should be taken seriously, regardless of background or education. Good judgement is more important than strict adherence to rules.

    📝 Podcast Summary

    The Importance of a College Education for Individuals and Society

    Going to college is an investment for yourself and society as a whole, with higher lifetime earnings, better health insurance, job satisfaction, and increased likelihood of civic engagement. However, only 38% of Americans have a bachelor's degree and college enrollment has been declining since the pandemic. This is concerning as education plays a crucial role in reducing income inequality. While some people are skeptical about the value of a college education, economists unanimously agree that it is immensely important.

    The multifaceted nature of higher education

    College is a powerful tool to shrink income inequality, but it tends to be a rarefied activity and even a shrinking one, particularly for those from lower-income, Black, and Latino families. The question then arises: What, exactly, is college for? During the Freakonomics Radio's 500th episode, experts, college presidents, academic researchers, and change-makers explored the multifaceted nature of higher education. While the church function of college is vital for knowledge, self-discovery, and society's betterment, the car-dealer part involves competition and profit-making. Economists view institutions like firms that interact in the market, which is why competition remains critical even in the not-for-profit education sector.

    How Different Tuition Systems Impact Education Competition

    Differentiation is a key aspect of how schools and universities compete against each other, with one major factor being tuition price. The U.S. has a unique system where prices are not controlled and often rely on the market to set them. Public universities in Germany are free, while in the U.K., tuition is capped at around $12,000 for U.K. students. Despite weaker colleges on average, the U.S. has many top universities with strong research institutions that draw students worldwide. This is due to deliberate and rational design by European governments, compared to the U.S.' more chaotic approach. This kind of differentiation is what allows institutions to capture different segments of demand, ultimately leading to their success.

    The Evolution and Funding of Elite US Universities

    The US university system has evolved over time, with specialized graduate training models and a focus on attracting top faculty talent leading to the creation of an established tier of elite universities. The Cold War and the federal government's desire to accelerate innovation led to the modern grant system, which directs massive funding to select institutions. While some may view this as inequitable, Miguel Urquiola believes that the genius of the system is that research is funded on the backs of wealthy families who donate heavily to their alma maters, further burnishing their reputations and allowing for continued research. The state also plays a role, with federal funding and tax breaks helping to support universities like Stanford, which conducts a lot of research.

    Wealthy Giving Highlights Inequality in US Education System

    Wealthy individuals giving money for the common good can generate positive outcomes, but it also highlights the inequality in the US education system. The focus on elite universities disregards the majority of college students and their potential. Morty Schapiro, president of Northwestern University and a former attendee of an under-resourced high school, emphasizes that the ability to attend college should not be based on one's income. Merit-based scholarships provide opportunities for individuals who may not have had access to higher education otherwise. The US education system should strive to provide equal opportunities to all students, regardless of their socioeconomic background.

    Attending mid-tier schools may lead to greater upward income mobility than elite schools.

    Attending mid-tier schools like Hofstra and City University of New York (CUNY) can be more beneficial for students seeking upward income mobility than attending elite schools like Northwestern or Williams. These mid-tier schools have been shown to be better at moving students up the income distribution by admitting more students from non-wealthy backgrounds and creating better education outcomes for them. While elite schools may excel in research, their student populations mostly come from wealthy families and cater to the top 1% of the income scale. Therefore, the focus should be on improving accessibility and resources for mid-tier schools to support the majority of students seeking better life outcomes.

    The Struggle of Community College Students

    Community colleges enroll nearly half of all college entrants but only 40 percent of community-college entrants get their degrees within six years; for four-year colleges, that figure is over 70 percent. Students who enroll in community colleges aspire to a bachelor’s degree but less than 20 percent of them go on to get a bachelor’s degree at a four-year school. Community colleges have significantly fewer resources to devote to their students with just $8,000 being spent on each student, contributing to their lack of success. While some people call for more funding for them, for-profit privates are transforming the lives of low-income students, making sure they have a good career.

    The Success of Historically Black Colleges and Universities

    Historically Black colleges and universities (H.B.C.U.s) have proven to be successful in driving income mobility for Black students, producing 20 percent of all Black graduates and 25 percent of Black graduates in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. They stand in contrast to elite schools that educate a tiny fraction of the college population, tend to come from the upper reaches of the income distribution, and predominantly serve white students. Community colleges, which serve lower-income and minority students, present another end of the spectrum, but have a low completion rate. The Federal government has invested in H.B.C.U.s, and recently, MacKenzie Scott donated hundreds of millions of dollars to H.B.C.U.s, community colleges, and tribal colleges. The president of Prairie View A&M University, Ruth Simmons, is an exemplary figure who embodies the H.B.C.U. success story, having become the first Black president of an Ivy League school.

    The transformative power of education and inspiring teachers.

    Ruth Simmons, the first black president of an Ivy League university, credits her success to her devoted teachers who inspired her to focus on a bright future rather than the difficulties of being African-American. Growing up in a large sharecropper family in segregated Texas, her teachers instilled in her the belief that she didn't have to be a maid and instead, that she could go to college and succeed. Education broadened Simmons' perspective, humbled her, and introduced her to different cultures, including Mexico, where she experienced kindness and acceptance. Simmons' journey is a testament to the power of education and the role of inspiring teachers.

    The Transformative Power of Education

    Education has the power to transform individuals and society, from early childhood education to college education. Despite differences in privilege and upbringing, all children have the opportunity to learn and become better people. College education, in particular, has significant returns that go beyond the economic benefits emphasized by economists. It teaches critical thinking, problem-solving, and social awareness that are essential for success in a rapidly changing world. College also exposes students to diversity and different perspectives, which fosters empathy and understanding. In the context of current societal challenges like systemic racism and inequality, education can empower individuals and communities to face reality and create meaningful change.

    The Impact of HBCUs on Success in Black Communities.

    The quality of education plays a crucial role in shaping a person's life. Privilege alone cannot guarantee a successful life if the right educational experience is lacking. HBCUs are mission-driven institutions that focus on making sure their students are successful. Unlike competitive models, HBCUs are about making sure everyone gets through. This focus on success has resulted in HBCUs producing a significantly higher number of Black graduates in STEM fields, Black judges, Black doctors, and Black members of Congress. The value of education lies in helping students succeed, and institutions should strive to uphold this mission.

    Investing in Personal Growth: An Alternative to Traditional Education

    College is not the only path to becoming the best version of oneself. Ruth Simmons, former president of Prairie View A&M, believes that developing our minds fully is the key to personal growth, and this can be done through any course of education or life experience. She encourages individuals to invest in themselves and take personal growth seriously, regardless of socioeconomic status or educational pathway. Simmons emphasizes the importance of good judgement over following rules, a valuable philosophy for any company or institution. Her impact on generations of students and her inspiring words serve as a reminder that personal growth is a journey available to all.

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