Wang: Getting Your Money’s Worth
By Ethan Wang, Staff columnist and former Opinion editor
Published on Thursday, October 11, 2012
There is a scene in “Good Will Hunting” (1997) in which Matt Damon’s character Will, an uneducated janitor, has an argument with a hotshot college student about some deep academic subject. After outsmarting the college student, Will memorably tells him, “You dropped 150 grand on a f*ckin’ education you could’ve got for $1.50 in late charges at the public library.”
This world may not have many geniuses like Will Hunting, but you don’t need to look far to find hotshot college students who are spending hefty amounts on an education they arguably could have received for free. The sticker price of a term’s worth of education at Dartmouth is about $15,000. But many of the bright minds here could probably learn just as much if they skipped all their classes and simply read the textbook or online lectures on YouTube. Every term, more than a few have succeeded in doing just that. In her column this week, Yoo Jung Kim questioned the value of a college degree and argued that we should consider other, more practical paths to certain careers (“To What Degree,” Oct. 9). It’s not hard to see where Kim is coming from. With most college classes consisting of lectures that cover material easily found books, a motivated person may very well learn just a much by spending four years at the public library. Yet our society is unlikely to discount the importance of a college degree any time soon, so no alternative to college will ever carry the same value. Rather, we need to work on making a college degree truly as worthwhile as it’s considered to be.
A college education needs to provide something that the learning we get from spending time in the library and on the Internet do not. Of course, college offers many opportunities for growth and education outside the classroom, but those extracurricular experiences alone cannot justify the astronomical cost of tuition and the value that employers place on a college degree. And yes, college also offers a sprinkling of seminar classes in which discussions sometimes generate new insights and perspectives that cannot be gleaned from reading books alone. But putting a bunch of bright students together to talk about material found in that day’s reading shouldn’t be worth $15,000 a term.
What ultimately distinguishes a college education from the one a library can provide is the faculty of this country’s leading — and most expensive — institutions of higher learning. However, even at a place like Dartmouth that avoids teaching assistants, professors are highly underutilized. Currently, the closest interaction that many Dartmouth students have with their professors is through the occasional office hour meeting and a couple of 15-person seminars they take their freshman and senior years. We can do much better.
Many British universities, most prominently Oxford and Cambridge Universities, use the tutorial method, in which classes consist of one-on-one meetings with the instructor. These tutorials are focused on problem solving, deep discussion and individualized teaching rather than regurgitation of standard textbook material. Granted, these British schools rely heavily on teaching assistants to allow every class to have individualized one-on-one teaching. However, small private schools like Dartmouth can easily apply a less extreme model, in which tutorials have slightly more students and are used to complement traditional classes. With Dartmouth’s eight-to-one student-to-faculty ratio, it is feasible for students to make one of their three courses each term a small, tutorial-like class.
We can free up professors by delegating some of the traditional lecture courses, especially introductory classes, to graduate teaching assistants. It may feel good to have that 100-person introductory economics or biology class taught by “real” professors, but how much does a leading academic contribute to a class in which most of the material comes right out of the textbook and in which office hours are dominated by students asking to reiterate information from lectures? Students will likely get just as much out of the class if teaching assistants take over. In return, professors are free to focus their teaching on small tutorial classes — a format that is no doubt more interesting for the teacher and more rewarding for the student.
The original version of this article misidentified the names of two British universities. They are the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, not Oxford and Cambridge Universities.