Why Colleges Should Be Like Cars

05/07/2012 09:18 am ET | Updated Jul 07, 2012

You're buying a car. You come across a stunning, brand-new Mercedes for $50,000. Next to it is a worn-out, used Jeep with 50,000 miles on it, for six times the price, or $300,000.

The choice is obvious, and it rests on a simple, driving principle that defines the free market: Price ought to be aligned with quality. But when it comes to higher education, that seemingly straightforward notion is thrown out the window. No one in their right mind would ever pay more for a car of lesser quality, and the same should hold true for a university.

Take my situation. I was admitted to both Brandeis University and Binghamton University. Graduates at Binghamton, on average, have starting salaries roughly 10 percent greater than their counterparts at Brandeis. Nevertheless, tuition at Brandeis is over six times the price at Binghamton.

Forgive my narrow-minded assumption that the sole purpose of attending college is to earn the greatest possible salary. There is no doubt that a college experience certainly has more to offer. But my guess is, if it were no longer the case that a college education lead to such profound economic benefits, most would stop attending.

With student loan debt levels now totaling over $1 trillion in the U.S. -- surpassing total credit card debt -- the issue of affordability needs to be addressed quickly. We should be investing in our youth's future, not alienating them. Just like with cars, clothing, and everything else on the market, we should not have to pay more for less in return.

Granted, addressing the gap in tuition and salaries is difficult. With a car, you know exactly how much it will cost to manufacture. With an education, on the other hand, you do not know its value until the first paycheck arrives years after you graduate.

It would make sense, then, to make tuition costs variable. Students at FixUC, an organization based at UC Riverside, outline a plan worthy of attention: Instead of charging a flat rate, universities would take five percent of their graduates' salaries for the first 20 years of their career.

Currently, students are forced to pay for an education with no idea of what kind of return they will receive. The free market only functions properly when the consumer is well-informed about the deal they are entering. You wouldn't buy a car not knowing how many miles were on it -- why should paying tuition be any different?

Of course, this plan has some shortfalls. Schools would have an incentive to produce high-earners. Fields that tend to hand out higher salaries, such as medicine and engineering, would receive far more attention than, say, philosophy. As we have recently seen with standardized testing in the wake of No Child Left Behind, incentives and education do not mix well. Under this plan, "teaching to the test" may very well become "teaching to the paycheck."

This plan is by no means perfect, but it's a step in the right direction. We need to equate affordability with accountability, and finally put cost in line with results. And we need to do so in a way that maintains those aspects that make higher education so enlightening. None of this will be easy, but we can start by talking about tuition like we talk about our cars.