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Education works as a placebo effect

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Kai Ryssdal: College students, and their parents, who have yet to write this fall’s tuition checks may want to bear the following statistic in mind. According to the Department of Education, more students are going deeper into debt to pay for school. Last year, total federal student loan payments increased 25 percent. Are students getting what they borrowed for? Commentator Tyler Cowen says yeah they are, sort of.

TYLER COWEN: There’s lots of evidence that placebos work in medicine; people get well simply because they think they’re supposed to.

But we’re learning that placebos apply to a lot of other areas and that includes higher education. Schooling works in large part because it makes people feel they’ve been transformed. Think about it: college graduates earn a lot more than non-graduates, but studying Walt Whitman rarely gets people a job. In reality, the students are jumping through lots of hoops and acquiring a new self-identity.

The educators and the administrators stage a kind of “theater” to convince students that they now belong to an elite group of higher earners. If students believe this story, many of them will then live it.

Colleges therefore are very concerned with prestige, status, and yes, pretense. That means thick syllabi, famous professors, and an impressive graduation ceremony.

Online instruction will never take over from traditional colleges and universities. Just as missionaries make personal visits to bring their message to life, so must professors and students spend face time together to animate the feeling that learning has taken place.

One reason we spend so much on college is to convince ourselves of our own commitment; similarly, in medicine, experiments show that aspirin relieves more of our pain, if we know that we spent more money on the pills.

In the armed forces, part of “making Marines” is that the soldiers feel they suffered to get there. So, effective higher education probably won’t ever be cheap or easy.

It really does cost a lot to bundle together a bit of learning, some good theater, and some missionary zeal, replete with the socially required props.

Colleges and universities may appear inefficient or overpriced, but it’s a business model likely to stand the test of time. As long as we keep on thinking that it works, it probably does.

RYSSDAL: Tyler Cowen is what you might call an interested party in the success of higher education. He’s a professor of economics at George Mason University. There’s more on this in his latest book “Create Your Own Economy: the Path to Prosperity in a Disordered World.”

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