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Thursday, January 24, 2008

On the Value of Education

My son attends Meigs Magnet Middle School since last fall. The school is part of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. Acceptance is based on grades and a lottery. The other day, I had the chance to visit during class. I received my primary and secondary school education in Germany. The visit was my first at a US magnet school. Learning is project-oriented. The teachers were competent and involved. I saw children of a great variety of ethnic and racial backgrounds. Their diverse faces shared one striking feature: big, bright, and curious eyes. I was deeply impressed by their ubiquitous thirst for knowledge and cannot imagine a more profound demonstration of the essence of education. Its success cannot be bought. Rather, a successful education depends upon opportunities given and opportunities taken.

This principle also applies to higher education. Currently, graduating high school students and their parents are preparing college applications in this country. The New York Times ran an instructive article about the work of guidance councilors on January 4, 2008, accompanied by an illuminating Q&A section. Obviously the parties involved are deeply concerned with the wisdom of their decisions. Often, the equivalent value of a home may be spent.

I have studied and worked at four academic institutions, that is the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University Frankfurt a.M., Germany, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, TN, USA, the University of Lausanne, Lausanne, Switzerland, and Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN. The most demanding undergraduate class I took was a three-quarter course in Biochemistry for premedical students at UT. Regardless of private or public institution, only a select few students I met were eventually accepted by medical schools affiliated with the Ivy League. Besides impeccable grades, the most influential factor seemed the MCAT score. Everybody felt the need to take the Princeton Review.

Although higher education costs a lot in the US, it is a commodity without warranty. Education is not like a garment made to measure. Keeping with this analogy, the garment's fit depends on the ingenuity of the tailor and the wearer alike. The prospective student must decide in which environment her/his development may benefit the most. This may not necessarily be at the most expensive and prestigious school. A superb teaching environment does not depend on prime recreational facilities and posh accommodations. There may be value in simplicity. One of the most brilliant teacherswhose thoughts are still remembered after more than 2,400 years worked with very little overhead.


Addenda
  • Unigo is the most informative college survey site, if you do not know which direction to turn (added 09/21/08).
  • You may wish to read on the unfolding financial crunch gripping U.S. colleges and universities in my posts dated Oct. 30 and Dec. 9, 2008.
  • The other day, I paid my first visit to an American mega-university. More than 63,000 students toil at Ohio State University (OSU) in Columbus, Ohio. Total cost in this academic year for in-state students may come to a third of private college cost. Its a huge campus. The shear size may be startling. But I was deeply impressed with the faculty. All professors I met had attended highly reputed universities and spent their earlier careers at top-ten research universities. I took my visit to show that many institutions of higher learning in this country may offer an excellent education at affordable cost. If we are willing to take the front seat, crowds pose no obstacle. We were a thousand students in my Introduction to Biology lectures. Yet, even an auditorium for a thousand students offers seats up front. You could easily read the slides and enjoy the action still from the tenth row. The lectures were highly instructive. The demonstrations were fascinating. These crowded lectures sowed the seeds for many posts on this blog (10/31/09).
  • Last weekend, Nashville made the national headlines with the news of a catastrophic historical flood. According to NashvilleWX Channel2, some areas received more than 18 inches of rain. Last Monday evening, the Cumberland River crested just under 52 feet, 4 feet below the highest level recorded in history. Mayor Karl Dean estimates that the damage may exceed $1.5 billion. The Tennessean covers the events extensively. The impact of the horrific deluge depends on location. We live on a hill. Though our basement is unfinished, it only turned damp. No tornado struck our home. We were spared one more time. By contrast, homes and businesses near the Cumberland River and its tributaries were totally flooded. To date, we know that ten people lost their lives in Metropolitan Davidson County. About 2,000 residences took water. Countless families lost their homes. Public schools have been closed all week. My son's school, Meigs Magnet Middle School, provided outstanding leadership in these extraordinary times. On the day of the worst flooding, May 2, the school's principal inquired in phone and e-mail messages about the status of the students and their families. Based on the school's initiative, we know now that flooding severely affected at least 20 Meigs families, and the PTO is organizing help and relief. My son could not attend a better school (05/06/10).
  • People begin to listen (05/24/10)!
  • Based on a student survey conducted by ratemyprofessors.com, Robert Franek, Laura Braswell and the staff of The Princeton Review compiled a list of the 300 best professors at US institutions of higher learning along with professor and school profiles. The list was published in softcover by Random House this year and is quite informative. For example, Harvard University (private; annual tuition: $34,976.-) contributes two professors to the list. By contrast, The College of William and Mary (public; in-state tuition: $13,132.-; out-of-state tuition: $35,409.-) is home to ten such professors. According to William and Mary's Faculty Compensation Board Report 2009-10, full professors at the college earned on average roughly $112,000.- in that academic year (most recent data available), whereas at Harvard University they earned $198,400.- in the academic year 2011-12 (AAUP's Annual Report on The Economic Status of The Profession 2011-2012 with the title "A Very Slow Recovery"). Passion for teaching need not necessarily correlate with pay (05/23/12)!
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4 comments:

  1. What wonderful article! Thanks for succintly putting in words what I have often thought while wondering why I pay so much for college.

    I went to a private high school in India at the cost of $200/year and it had a rigor and simplicity that I dearly miss. The classes were bareboned but the teachers super-qualified and the students willing to "take the opportunities" that were being given to them.

    I already have 80k in students loans and I believe most of it goes to building our fancy new rec center, marriott-catered dining facility, alumni fundraising, and paying grad students to teach our seminars. Oh and of course Citibank in 8% APR. Well at least soon that may mean some of that will be going back into the govt coffers.

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  2. Dear Manisha,
    thank you for your comment. It is most welcome. I hope my posts and the thoughts that readers contribute help other people in their decisions.
    I wish you find some means of debt reduction soon,
    Peter.

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