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CMC? Or Wikipedia University?

October 28, 2009

by Kevin Burke
CMC? Or Wikipedia University?

What exactly does CMC give you that the University of Phoenix can't for much cheaper? Even Wikipedia is a viable option these days.Let's put aside the fact that college is awesome: that for our tuition we get access to lovely people our own age, free booze, served meals, a fitness facility, notable speakers at the Ath, a swimming pool, any book you could possibly want from the library, fast Internet and computer labs with two screens, room cleaning once every two weeks, hot showers, late night snacks, and easy jobs. These luxuries are all nice but they're only tangentially related to increasing our earnings potential. (Unless we get used to a life of luxury at CMC, and enter high-paying professions to maintain a high standard of living. But that's another question.)

The typical explanation is that we go to a good college to "learn things," fill our heads with calculus and chemistry and the canon, and then we'll be more prepared for jobs because we know more things than a high school graduate. This might have been true back in the day when information was more limited and you had to physically go to the places where people knew calculus and chemistry to get a better education than a G.E. Doctors, nurses, engineers, accountants, future professors, and maybe actuaries learn useful information as an undergraduate that they will need for their careers. Besides a specious argument that college teaches you "how to think," it's not obvious that the things we learn in other departments are useful for post-graduate life, or true that we need to pay $50,000 to learn about them.

I can think of four better reasons that justify the amount of money you're spending to come here.

There's a positive peer group effect. Your work rate depends very much on how hard your friends are working. Want to become a good student? Become friends with good students. If you want an explanation for your success while you're in school, look no further than your roommate, who has a significant influence on your GPA. The long-term evidence is more murky, but when you surround yourself with other successful students, they rub their smarts on you, your skills rub off on them and everyone benefits.

There's a networking effect. According to the Internet, over seventy percent of jobs are found through networking. CMC's connections in finance and government in particular run deep. As I heard one RDS scholar say, "If we didn't have alums at that company no one would have even read my application." It's not quite nepotism, but alums in the field will help CMC seniors get a leg up. Although this is less true nowadays, because rich people are delaying marriage, CMC is also a great place to meet a potential spouse from your socioeconomic class. Marriage has a big positive effect on income and productivity.

Doing hard work can help "override the governor." The most interesting article I've read recently was a profile of Jure Robic, a Slovenian biker who competes in weeklong, 24-hour bike races. Robic will literally go crazy around day three of the race; he starts hallucinating, jumping off his bike to engage in combat with mailboxes and shouting nonsense at his race team. His team discovered that when Robic feels ready to drop dead from exhaustion, he's still got about 50% of his energy to give. At that point, fatigue is more or less a brain feature than an accurate assessment of your ability to keep pumping your muscles. By completing a steady diet of papers, exams, and research assignments, students are doing things that they would discard as being too difficult if they weren't in school. This tolerance for work builds up over four years; doing large amounts of work also forces students to manage their time and focus. Getting good marks from professors and managing the workload can give students more confidence in their abilities, which has positive effects on their success in the workplace. This helps explain why athletes have more post-grad success than non-athletes; they have more practice in persistence and training their brain to fight through procrastination and fatigue.

Your degree and GPA differentiate you from other job-seekers. Yes, you are paying $200k for a piece of paper, but what a piece of paper! Your CMC degree tells employers that you're trustworthy, and, if you have a good GPA, that you're probably a better candidate than most of your peers. A signal's value correlates with how hard it is to acquire; a degree represents four years of hard work.  Additionally, a degree from this prestigious college signals that you're smart, and got good high school grades.  Other job applicants need to work much harder to show off their smartness.

While school is nominally about learning new things, the smart student will realize she can do that anywhere, like Wikipedia. The parts of a CMC education that actually help you earn more money later in life don't match up well with academic subjects. Just try telling your parents that when you get a disappointing report card.

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