the u-shaped theory of higher education

Many forms of education run on a simple principle: if you get good applicants and train them in a straightforward fashion, you will get good results. In higher education, you start with freshmen. Then you flatten them (Econ 101) or mash them (Organic Chemistry). Add literature requirements or a foreign language. If you want a light taste, add a Phys Ed requirement, study abroad, or art appreciation.

That brings me to my theory of price-quality correlation in higher education. Everything I described is really simple to do and uses very common ingredients, even if it is a bit time intensive. It can also be made in large batches, so it should be cheap to make. And it is cheap in places where people actually care about decent training. That’s where you get the killer small college with excellent course modules for $150 a credit-hour. Saint Paul Collegein Minnesota has cheap, but good, courses in this range. Hesston, a Mennonite place, has decent low cost fare. Mayland CC is our best example.

So how can you charge $30,000 or $40,000 bucks per year for full service that’s nothing other than slow-cooked students with gowns? I don’t know, but I suspect the $8,000 course at the local private school with a John Harvard statue is charging for “atmosphere.” They are also doing a lot of extra prep — weird Red faculty, drowning stuff in melted Zizek, etc. Thus, the typical private school in this range is bad.

Oddly, education gets a whole lot better once you hit the $80,000-$100,000 range. Why? Well, because frankly it’s in my interest to claim it does. But at this point, you hit a price point indicating much higher quality ingredients. I mean students. For example, you might get a place with an actual French intellectual, who speaks French and everything. Or you might get a building that’s really as old as it looks. The knock-off faux gothic place isn’t going to be chasing students in this price range because they know they can’t fake it.


Written by Kieran

February 20, 2011 at 2:57 pm

13 Responses

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  1. This must be the only blog where posters mock each other with parallel construction posts that manage to make fairly good social science points.


    Fabio Rojas

    February 20, 2011 at 4:06 pm

  2. Haha! I love it.


    brayden king

    February 20, 2011 at 4:08 pm

  3. “Mocking” isn’t the right word at all, Fabs — it’s a generalizable theory! John Meyer Buys A Taco.



    February 20, 2011 at 4:09 pm

  4. I was with you up until the weird Red faculty and the melted Zizek.


    Benjamin Mako Hill

    February 20, 2011 at 5:05 pm

  5. Shouldn’t it be Glenn Carroll buys a Taco? After all, Fabio just essentially re-invented resource-partitioning theory in the previous post.



    February 20, 2011 at 5:11 pm

  6. There’s the strict resource partitioning bit, but also the legitimation part — education/tacos as basic sort of vocational/food product, but higher-status parts of the market gussied up with ritualized legitimators. Baumol’s cost (heart?) disease is in there, too.



    February 20, 2011 at 5:15 pm

  7. And don’t forget the deep division between field of restricted-taco production versus the field of large-scale Mexican stomach bombs.



    February 20, 2011 at 5:16 pm

  8. […] today, Fabio Rojas proposed his u-shaped theory of Mexican food. Kieran Healy responded with a line-by-line imitation, applying it to higher education. I suppose the question they don’t answer is why people […]


  9. I really like the u-shaped theory of everything (tacos, education, institutions, blog posts, articles, matter) that is getting developed here. Parsimonious and beautiful.



    February 20, 2011 at 9:21 pm

  10. >Baumol’s cost (heart?) disease is in there, too.

    OK, now we need to find an equivalent to the Hispanic paradox for the service sector



    February 20, 2011 at 10:18 pm

  11. […] schools and junior colleges charge way less. For a nice description, see Kieran’s “U Shaped Theory of College Education.” Regular college really isn’t expensive, but there is definitely a luxury […]


  12. I worry about the imminent arrival of mobile gourmet colleges.


    Eric Titus

    April 14, 2011 at 7:47 pm

  13. […] from the Chronicle of Higher Education to the New York Times. I highly recommend OrgTheory’s discussion of these topics as one entry point. *** This statement may be more than a little optimistic. No […]


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