This time of year we think about shopping. Christmas presents rank high on our to-do list. But millions of young people are shopping for one of the most expensive items imaginable: an undergraduate education. An undergraduate degree costs a lot. How can people be sure they’re getting their money’s worth?
The standard answer of matching interests, cultural setting, and various preferences seems to evade the main question—this is college, after all. Ask the schools hard questions: what is the intellectual climate like, their commitment to students, and scholarly atmosphere? Do students come to learn, or party? And there are hard questions for the students to ask themselves: am I smart enough; can I work hard enough; are my standards high enough?
Taken to an extreme, such questions are demoralizing. But the more common danger is self-congratulation. We all tend to walk when we don’t need to run. Reputation is useful, but beware of big name professors who fly in for lectures in courses really taught by TAs. Intellectual culture isn’t nurtured off-site.
While the American research university is the envy of the world, we have an awkward system where the highest prize in academia is the endowed chair that requires no teaching: scholars with no disciples. Fortunately, there are thousands of schools that pursue the dual mandate of doing original research and teaching undergraduates.
But they’re only available to those who ask. And choose wisely.
Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA
Chief Investment Officer
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