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If you find a better diploma, buy one

Column/Daniel Crean

When I go up on the graduation platform on June 3, I want commencement speaker Lee Iacocca to hand me the keys to a new Chrysler. Maybe a Le Baron or a Regency 98. Hey, I'd even settle for a Skylark.

But I doubt it will happen. I don't think Iacocca will hand me the keys to anything. Instead somebody will probably hand me a diploma which says I graduated from MIT. The diploma may not have much of an intrinsic value, but it will have cost a lot more than any new car produced by Chrysler.

That cost is both monetary and non-monetary. Tuition for the last four years amounted to over $36,000. The cost in frustration, time, lack of freedom, and danger to my physical/mental health is incalculable.

What, then, is an MIT education worth? It is impossible to quantify the value of either an MIT education or an MIT degree. The best we can do is guess.

One approximation would be to look at it from an economic viewpoint, in terms of supply and demand: The more people want something, the more they are willing to pay for it. Its value is determined by how badly people want that thing.

By this viewpoint, MIT's education is worth quite a bit. People want to be students at MIT very badly, despite the recent rises in tuition. The Admissions Office has to turn down more people than it accepts year after year. The MIT education and/or degree are apparently valuable things, or at least they are perceived that way by applicants.

Last Christmas, "The CBS Evening News" ran a ten-minute segment featuring kids from around the country telling what they wanted for Christmas. "A new bike." "World peace." "A job for my father."

Almost all the responses were worthy things to want for Christmas, but there was one response that really bugged me. One kid wished "that me and my brother get into a good college."

The whole thing left Dan Rather pretty misty-eyed, but it almost made me throw up my egg nog. The kid who wanted to get into a good college wasn't some 17-year-old high school senior; he looked about ten, way too young to even be thinking about college, much less making Christmas wishes about it.

But these days some ten-year-olds are worrying about getting into good colleges, and some seventeen-year-olds are absolutely frantic about it. Seventeen years ago The Graduate was an extremely popular movie. Its hero was a guy with a bright future who chooses, instead of graduate school or a high-paying job, to sit around his parents' pool.

If The Graduate were released today, it wouldn't be nearly as popular as it was in 1968. Today, the movie Risky Business is extremely popular instead. In Risky Business, the hero is an ambitious rich kid whose main problem in life is getting into an Ivy League school. At one point he tells a friend "your life is set," because he was accepted to Harvard. We know that's not true, but many high school students believe it.

Risky Business is in some sense the 1980s equivalent of The Graduate, at least in terms of capturing the mood of many young people. In The Graduate, Benjamin is an upper-middle class guy who rejects the standard cultural conventions. In Risky Business, Joel is an upper-class kid who not only espouses his parents' conventions. He wants to outdo them in terms of getting ahead in standard society. Benjamin is offered the world and he leaves it alone. Joel goes out to take the world, and that includes going to a "good" college.

I'm not saying the values of today are not as good or are less noble than those of the 1960s. But they are different, at least for many people. Many high school students naturally expect -- and are expected -- to go to college. Because of their age and other constraints, these future yuppies are limited in how they can be successful. Going to a prestigious college is about the most successful thing they can do.

And MIT, for all of its bad points, is a very prestigious college. That, I think, is why MIT is such a sought-after place. Whether MIT's education and degree are really worth much more than their equivalents at state schools is debatable, but from a supply-and-demand standpoint they are worth a lot more. MIT will continue for now to attract people who believe it worth the price and who hope that after they graduate they will be able to buy a Chrysler Le Baron.