April 29, 2010

Double Take: What’s a Degree Worth?

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Munier: Andrew, our topic today is a biggie: What is a Cornell education worth? Last week The Sun ran a letter to the editor complaining of (oddly enough) a design flaw in the paper. A bar graph detailing after-graduation salaries had a y-axis that began at ~30,000 instead of at zero, which gave the impression that architects earned roughly a tenth the salary of an engineer (see graph below).

This scandal got me thinking: what is a Cornell education worth? Average salaries after graduation? Life experiences? Lack of life experiences? Thoughts?

Andrew: I’m interested in your questions. When I gather with my fellow philosophy geeks on May 30th to receive my diploma, I wonder exactly what it is that will be handed to me. Is it a piece of paper certifying my having received a liberal education with its implied mental and moral growth? Or will I merely have paid in dollars and deep thoughts for a VIP pass that gets me into the nation’s hottest companies?

Munier: My vote’s for VIP pass. But not exactly back stage access (that’s sort of an HYP/Stanford thing). More like front row and a t-shirt.

Andrew: I like to think I have grown during my college years. I know some things I didn’t know before, and I’m pretty sure I can figure out the rest. But the choice I presented may have been a false one. Maybe the diploma can signify meaningful progress and, if you pay enough for it, get you in back stage…

Munier: The growth claim is interesting. I too feel as though my thoughts have “developed” in some sense. But from the college experience, or just from four years of obsessively reading The New York Times? It’s hard to control for these sorts of things. A similar problem muddies the analysis with this notion of the Ivy diploma as a brand — is it the education/networking that puts people in lofty positions, or are those in lofty positions sending their sons and daughters to these schools in the first place? Is Georgetown better than Cornell at breeding senators, or are there more senator-primed kids going to Georgetown? I’ve done research at other schools, and I have met folks from colleges you’ve never heard of before. But they’re using the same physics text books and solving the same problems as me. And they’re getting in to top grad programs. Are they doing it in the same numbers as Cornell? Probably not. But it seems possible to do science on the cheap. I think the biggest difference is the level of competition. These singular kids are competing against themselves at a level beyond their classmates. At a school like this, you don’t need to be that sort of “far and away the best I’ve seen in years” person, you can just be in the top set that year. These colleges aggregate young, smart motivated people into the same room and get them collaborating, discussing and competing amongst themselves. That’s probably the most valuable aspect of this whole affair.

Andrew: Agreed. My experience interacting with philosophy students from other universities has shown me that if you put a blind submission process in place, some genius from Arkansas — not the Harvard kid —  is most likely to win the $200 cash prize for an outstanding paper on something no one cares about. But we still read about and experience the disproportionate influence of Ivy League grads on the nation. Our last four presidents have had at least one Ivy League degree each!

Munier: Perusing my hate mail from recent Greek bashing, I’ve also learned that nearly every modern president was in a frat. So perhaps the real presidential lessons come with brotherhood. But back to the central message … what is the true benefit of our education? Was it for that sublime sense of community and common goals? Was it evenings on Libe Slope chewing over existential dilemmas? Was it my freshman writing seminar? I tend to wonder.

Andrew: Well my Cornell education (and you may identify with this) was decidedly about disagreement. Never in my life have I disagreed so vehemently with so many people on politics, religion and basic interpretations of classical texts. Just the other day a graduate student was forcing a line of thought down the collective throat of a group of wide-eyed freshmen. Sexism, she argued, is clearly manifest in our failure as a society to expeditiously move towards human births outside of the womb.

Munier: Andrew, has your education taught you nothing? Your chauvinist, ethnocentric, heteronormative, WASMY, Western, right wing, Fox Noise, partisan ways blind you from truth. Plus research and development into artificial wombs would aid in my desires to have a child with another man that shares both our genes. My narcissism can’t cope with the idea of a 50-percent chance that the kid shares my nucleotides. Then I’ll force said children to come to Cornell with my legacy in, and thus the Salem clan assimilates with the douchoisie. So it goes …

Andrew: Sweet! Double Take will live on since Andrew Jr. is a shoo-in. And if an education is what you’ve after, you forget everything you learned, I’d like to say thanks to Cornell (and really you, Munier). I’ll always remember how to disagree, how to take an accusation that I am some sort of supremacist on the chin and smile. And you, Munier? Do you have anything you’d like to say to Cornell before you leave her?

Munier: Ah shucks … did I call you a supremacist? I meant tragically handsome. Our discussions down here have been a lot more useful than some of my course work (ECON 409, AEP 264, PSYCH 101). Between you and AKB and good ol’ Uncle Ezra, I’ve gotten a lot of knowledge under my belt. But mostly, it was HADM 4430, Introduction to Wines, for teaching me how to unwind and enjoy Wednesday afternoons. Hump Day is now Wines Day. And that is worth its weight in gold.

Andrew: Since I’m not much of a drinker, the closest thing I have to a hump day will come on May 30th when we all finally and terrifyingly become alumni. Then, and perhaps only then, will I be able to assess the value of my Cornell education. And I hope it’s worth a lot.

Original Author: Andrew Daines