Thursday, January 16, 2014

Part 2—Educational Economics

Part 2—Educational Economics

The Economics of the Education System 101

This is part 2 in a series of blog postings answering prospective students' questions about what to look for (and what to avoid) in a film school and how to tell a good school from a less good one. Part 1 appears on the preceding blog page.
This page begins with an excerpt from a note I received asking my advice about applying to film school. The request is one I actually received, but what follows it is a reply that combines re-written and expanded excerpts from many different responses I have made to many different inquiries over a period of almost a decade. My goal in combining and consolidating paragraphs and thoughts from many different responses into a much longer, more detailed, multi-part response is two-fold: First, to post a much more comprehensive statement than I have had time to make to any one inquiry I have received; and second, to cover a range of different situations that may answer the questions and address the needs of prospective students who come from widely different backgrounds and have markedly different goals and reasons for wanting to take courses in filmmaking, screenwriting, film criticism, and film appreciation.
For the sake of clarity, I am breaking my advice into shorter separate postings, organized under a series of topical headings. But even at this length, and with these topical divisions, there is still more to say; and there are, of course, always exceptions to be made in special cases. But I hope the following multi-part statement may be of use to anyone who is contemplating taking the path of attending film school. There are many intellectual, pedagogical, and professional factors that are invisible to prospective students but are obvious to an insider and are often deliberately concealed from prospective applicants for a range of financial and bureaucratic reasons. —Ray Carney

Dear Professor Carney,

…. I have been out of college for five years and am interested in obtaining a graduate degree in film. I was an English major as an undergraduate but have had a strong interest in film all of my life and would like to make a career of it. The problem is that I don’t know what I should be looking for in various programs. Everybody seems to claim that their program is the best and the one to enroll in. I am writing to you because you are the only professor whose judgment I trust; the rest seem to turn into salesmen when this subject is raised and I am not looking for a sales pitch but the truth. That was what I loved about your web site before Boston U. shut it down. You were not afraid to tell people the truth, even when it was difficult to hear. That sets you apart. Everything seems to be about telling people what they want to hear.
I know you are busy and how many students ask for your advice. So anything you say will be appreciated even if it’s short. How can I tell one school from another? What makes a good film program? What kinds of courses and teachers do you recommend?
I hope this is not an unreasonable request. Thanking you in advance.


Brad [last name withheld to protect his confidentiality]

* * *
Dear Brad,

You don’t need to apologize for asking. I’m always amazed at the number of students—and parents—willing to shell out $100,000 and up who don’t put as much time into investigating a university as they would into buying a house or a car—or who don’t treat the statements they read on the internet or hear at “Open House” and “Visiting Day” events with the same skepticism they would treat statements by a realtor or used car salesman attempting to close a sale. I attribute it to a wide-spread misconception that universities are fundamentally idealistic and noble enterprises (we know they should be, but that doesn’t alter the fact that, at least in my own experience at my own university, they clearly are not), and that they are not motivated by the same basic money-making principles as every other kind of corporation.
There are also some other special factors at work. The majority of the “customers” (the students and future students) are in their late teens and early twenties and are not really qualified to evaluate the quality of the “product” (the education) they are being offered. They can’t do a test drive; they have little or no way to assess value of what they are buying (beyond asking the opinions of friends who are themselves only teenagers or twenty-somethings); and the long-term benefits or shortcomings (the intellectual development and employment possibilities the educational process results in) are too delayed and after-the-fact, too remote in space and time, and too tenuously connected with the initial “purchase” (the education) to allow its real value to be measured. The “customer satisfaction” feedback loop is broken. Even if you wait until someone has graduated to ask them whether they think they received a good education, they have no way of knowing if they did or didn’t—and are far more likely to evaluate the quality of a school based on the food and the friendliness of their roommates than on what went on in their courses.
Another factor that skews the system is the weird disconnect between the decision-making process and the responsibility for payment. In many cases, deciding and paying involve different individuals or entities. The prospective student does the “picking,” while his or her parents end up doing part or all of the “paying” (or the debt is deferred in the form of long-term student loans, which has the same effect of separating the purchase from the payment process). The result is that the service being bought is not subjected to the same economic pressure to live up to its advertised claims and benefits as a service more directly, or personally, paid-for is.
Given the above, the “seller” (the university) can behave with a shocking lack of pedagogical responsibility and financial accountability, knowing that subpar service is not only unlikely to be detected, but will almost never result in a failure to be paid in full. Released from the pressure of customer complaints, cancellations, and requests for corrections or refunds, educational quality-control becomes strictly optional. It is done on the honor system—and then only by universities who choose to maintain the quality of their product, even if it costs more money to do so. For all other universities, universities like my own that are devoted to cutting educational corners to preserve the bottom line, it becomes just too easy, knowingly or unknowingly, to cheat the “customer” (the student) by providing a cut-rate product and service, since the customer/student won’t realize he has been cheated until years afterward (if ever!), and even if he then realizes it, won’t be in a position financially to punish the bad behavior of the “seller” (the university)—since the product was bought and paid for years or decades earlier (even as the student’s loan repayments continue for decades afterward to be “the gift that keeps on taking”). It's an economic model just begging to be abused.

Continued in Part 3—“There’s no Business Like Show Business”