Education is still one of the best investments in the world today. The cost of post secondary education to the student has been increasing quickly over the last 15 to 20 years. Yet, at today’s costs, (estimated around $29,000 per year including forgone wages) a university degree has a return on investment of approximately 26%. Very few other investments in the world have so high a return with so low a risk. This is even ignoring all the other important benefits to education.
The question then becomes why are employers willing to pay so much more for someone with a university education? Economics provides two possible explanations. First, a university degree signals to employers that the job candidate has an ability to work and be productive. This is called signalling. Second, skills are developed at university that are not developed else where, including community college. These skills make the potential employee that much more productive.
These ideas suggest something very important. The return to education can only exist if the degree represents a real productivity advantage. This creates an interesting paradox for those of us in the university education game. The quality of instructors is commonly measured by student opinion surveys conducted as a class nears the end. These surveys are clearly highly subjective. In the best of all possible worlds a good teacher assessed well in this system is one that typically makes it easier for students to acquire the skills or knowledge they need to do well in the course. This often means presenting the material in an interesting way; being an easy marker doesn’t hurt either. Often the presentation of a good mnemonic helps. Basically, the standard definition of a good teacher reduces the amount of effort that students have to put in. By reducing the effort required of students we dilute the quality of the signal to potential employers of a university degree. Those who “squeak by” will be less productive than the signal previously indicated. We also diminish the ability of students to acquire knowledge and skills on their own. Will a student that has had only “good teachers” be able to learn without a “good teacher”? If not, then good teaching will drastically reduce the value of education to employers and thus to students as well. I think we should reconsider our definition of a good teacher. A good teacher is one who prepares students to learn on their own. Being an effective teacher means making yourself unnecessary to the student by end of their degree. Ideally, the student should be able to surpass the teacher. This means demanding and somewhat unavailable. It is, however, essential that the faculty member be available to students who have exhausted other avenues, just as a professional expert is available, so too must be the university professor. But being overly available creates dependence, being totally unavailable provides no opportunity for a transfer of knowledge. We must seek a balance.
The key problem is assessing the quality of an instructor is difficult. Universities around the world need to think long and hard about how the quality of their instructors is assessed. We currently do it very poorly.