Re-evaluating the value proposition of college in a post COVID-19 world

on June 22, 2020

By Bill Valentine CFA for the Bend Bulletin
Valentine Ventures, LLC

As an analyst, I think a lot about the value propositions in life that exist when a good or service is exchanged for money. Everyday transactions that most normal people don’t pay much heed to routinely trigger in my gray matter an analysis of the equitability of the value proposition at hand.

Don’t I sound fun?

The truth is, we all do it, even if we don’t call it a “study of the value proposition.” Interestingly, the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted one proposition that was already under scrutiny — the cost of the traditional four-year college experience in the United States.

I am among a small group that has been railing at the expense of a typical college education for more than the last decade as the cost has skyrocketed, throwing the value proposition out of whack.

An explosion in government-backed student loans dating to 1990 resulted in textbook inflation for tuition. According to the Federal Reserve, in 1990 there was $24 billion in student loans. Today that number is $1.4 trillion. The cost of tuition is about three times as much as it used to be, be it a public or private institution, according to the College Board.

Has the value of the college education grown in lockstep with the cost? Is the deliverable three times more valuable than it used to be? I dare say no. Bloated budgets have been allocated to growth in administrative positions and the erections of state-of-the-art facilities, but the educational throughput is about the same.

If we break it down, the value of a traditional college experience is some combination of the information learned, the student’s socialization/maturation, the opportunity to build a network and the degree necessary for a career. But what should that really cost, given the way the world works now?

As we’ve learned during the lockdown, students can gather information, interact with faculty and other students, take tests, make presentations and pursue all the benchmarks of a degree — online. And yet, there are myriad alternative online courses that one can take that provide that same career-relevant education (or better) for a fraction of a cost. Consider the likes of udacity.commasterclass.comudemy.com, as well as several universities that offer online degrees.

Is it as much fun for the student deprived of the “college experience?” Most certainly not. But what should that be worth for mom and dad, or for the student that takes on the loans? Maybe there’s a middle ground … something that combines socialization and learning, but for much less cost.

Also worthy of consideration are three other competing models to the traditional U.S. college path.

First, there are overseas colleges. I’m biased here because my boys chose to go to foreign universities after we lived for a stint in Barcelona. Not only are overseas schools one-half to one-third as expensive, they create an attractively well-rounded student. It’s a solid value proposition.

Second, consider trade schools. Our country is losing its tradespeople, and the shortage creates opportunities. A tradesperson can earn a solid wage and good benefits — and for those that opt to start their own company, they can make as much as a doctor or lawyer in short order. Another great value proposition.

Last, there’s no school at all. We all know that the most successful entrepreneurs never finished college (Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, et al.), but lesser grandiose endeavors don’t necessarily require a college degree. Charting one’s own path in life, absent post-secondary learning, is in many respects is the truest testament to grit, and what better value proposition comes from the knowledge only learned in experiences?

I’ve already heard from a number of friends that they’re not likely to pay the full boat of tuition if their kids are going to be compelled to stay off-campus and learn online this fall. Who can blame them?

To be clear, I’m not anti-college; I’m anti-ridiculously-priced-college. It’s my hope, perhaps naively so, that through competing pathways of greater value proposition, that we may right-price traditional college in line with its benefits. But as long as we pump out unlimited student loans, and imply that they may be forgiven, expect the establishment to remain entrenched. Until then, consider all your options.

Bill ValentineRe-evaluating the value proposition of college in a post COVID-19 world