What You’re Really Paying for at a Famous College

The biggest open secret in higher education is that the syllabus isn’t secret.

Even before the internet, there was the Good Will Hunting option — for a few bucks in late fees at the public library, you could learn at least as much as any college student.

Now that there is the internet, information is not the scarce resource at school.

Instead, the scarce resource is time and space. In the monastic tradition that predated universities, monks went to monasteries because that’s where the books were. These days, information is everywhere, but it’s harder than ever to find the time and space to sit with, explore, and contemplate it.

So let’s be clear from the outset: what you’re paying for at a famous college these days is not access to information (the cost of access to the campus WiFi network is negligible). You’re paying for the privilege of unstructured time to read and reflect, some instruction in how to do that effectively, and a cohort of interesting people to do it with.

If we’re going to recalculate the cost of college, that’s a good base rate to begin with.