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A Truly Private College
Very interesting piece in The Wall Street Journal by Mark Oppenheimer, who asks "Pop quiz: Is the cost of a college education worth it? (No.) Is there an alternative? (Yes.)" He looks at Internet universities first:

Founded in 1976, Phoenix bills itself as "the largest private university in the United States." Phoenix, which is for-profit, has dozens of campuses, but the majority of its 315,000 students learn by computer. There is something to be said for this model. It's cheap: The Philadelphia campus charges $10,800 for a full-year online course load. The many campuses and online options do serve working men and women, parents and others who can't carve out time to go back to school in the traditional sense. And the online student is not distracted by fraternity initiates wearing silly beanies, freshman sex ed, sensitivity training or weekend kegstands.

But for such an education to be worth the money, the professors have to be good, and with a faculty of many thousands, most of whom never meet each other, quality control must be quite the challenge. I might hire a secretary with an online degree, but I don't want my nurse to have received her master's over the Internet.

So if you conclude that the best learning is done face-to-face, and that some subjects--foreign languages, laboratory science, physical therapy--can't be taught without human contact, then are we condemned to $30,000 tuitions? Not necessarily; you have a few other options. If you're willing to forgo intercollegiate sports, fancy dorms and the senior class dance, you could attend any number of European state-funded universities that rival ours in intellectual quality and cost far less. And hey, if you're really willing to scale down on certain frills of college social life, remember that the Roman Catholic Church will happily pay for the education of seminary students headed for the priesthood.

But I have a better solution, one that's even more radical but allows you to stay in your American suburb, work within the old-fashioned American free market and avoid religious vows. How about banding together with some other students to hire tutors?

There are thousands of under-employed Ph.D.s in America who could be paid to offer college-level courses in your living room. If 10 students banded together and put up $10,000 each--students who, say, couldn't care less about football, don't need a Women's Center and have no urge to join Delta Delta Delta--they could hire two high-end intellectuals, pay them $50,000 each and get personal instruction.

The learning might well be more intense than the usual lazy college classroom, the demands more concentrated, the instruction more neatly tailored to the abilities and needs of each student. Many a doctorate-owner has overlapping areas of expertise. Tutor A could teach, for instance, religion, history and politics in the mornings, while Tutor B could teach law, literature and grammar in the afternoons. Actual essay tests would be possible with such a small group; papers too: No longer would the teacher feel the need to avoid writing requirements lest he be stuck, for hours on end, having to read the bad student prose of, say, a huge survey course.

For research, students could use the public library or buy short-term passes to university research libraries. For fun, the class could read novels, play pickup basketball at the public park or, on snowy days, watch cable TV--the Learning Channel, of course. Speaking of which, my cable costs $40 a month, a lot cheaper than what most colleges charge their captive dorm residents--yet another reason to abjure the overpriced American university.

Americans like their churches big, their servings of Coke big, their universities big. But in schooling, big has become unbearably expensive. We may as well try returning to the small: a teacher, some students, some books. Such an arrangement used to be reserved for the wealthy aristocracy in ancient Greece or Enlightenment France, but now it would actually result in a much lower tuition bill for the middle-class American family. As a postmodern Marxist tutor might be the first to tell you, you have nothing to lose but your debt, and you have a world to win.

Posted by aalkon at February 19, 2006 5:07 AM

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