I was listening today to Robert Laughlin on EconTalk. Laughlin makes a side point about higher education; the podcast summary sketches it like this: “Attending elite universities is not education—it’s access to the peer group. There’s a lot of truth to that. The actual education you get is pretty generic. If you were really diligent, you could open books and read it. What you are really selling is access to other students and to colleagues. Gateway to certain things—that’s what you charge for, can’t charge for knowledge.”

Economists often make arguments like this about higher education: the real value of elite education, they say, is access to peer group, or status signaling, or pure credentialing—almost anything other than what happens between faculty and students.

And to a large extent, I buy those arguments. I think they are incomplete, however, and their incompleteness comes to light when we think of applying the same logic to elite high school athletes. Would anyone say that an 18-year-old athlete would do just as well to study books and videos for a few years as to enter an elite college or professional program?

I suspect that nearly everyone would agree that highly skilled athletes need to seek out the handful of coaches who can and will help them develop their skills further.

To what extent are highly skilled 18-year-old writers or mathematicians or musicians in a similar position?

I don’t know exactly, of course, but I suspect that the present and future ability of elite colleges and universities to justify their existence and price tags depends on their success in making the case for that analogy—the case for higher education as a process of doing rather than knowing.

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