When John Hennessy became the tenth president of Stanford University in 2000, Silicon Valley was at the height of the dot-com bubble. More than a decade later, the Internet has matured and a new crop of companies built on top of it are fueling another investment boom. In a recent interview, Hennessy discussed the boom-versus-bubble question. He also addressed the student-loan crisis, the nuance of educating a generation of multitaskers, and the broader role that Stanford will play in the future of Silicon Valley. A lightly edited transcript follows.
ADAM LASHINSKY: So, I want to start on the subject of costs. And so I've heard the number that an elite school charges about $60,000 a year. I don't know if that's a Stanford number or an average number.
JOHN HENNESSY: I'd say 55,000, all in, books, tuition, room and board. Yeah, that's a kind of reasonable number.
ADAM LASHINSKY: And you've said that the education, at least at Stanford, number one, costs more than that --
JOHN HENNESSY: Yes.
ADAM LASHINSKY: -- and number two, that if your income is below a certain level, then you're going to get a discount all the way up to 100 percent.
So, I want to ask you, first of all, why does an education cost more than that?
JOHN HENNESSY: It's driven by wage costs. Faculty members are well-educated, high income, reasonably high income earning people, as you would find in other places where people have largely graduate degrees.
I think steps to improve quality over time have actually increased costs: smaller classes, more hands-on, more safety net for the students, so if a student is struggling there's somebody to help them out, right? All these things I think have added costs over time. And we haven't had any significant real productivity increases.
ADAM LASHINSKY: Your comment would suggest that the quality of higher education is generally higher now than it was a generation or two generations ago, and I suppose it's a two-part question. To be fair to you as the president of Stanford, first part, is the quality higher at Stanford? Secondly, is the quality higher generally across the United States?
JOHN HENNESSY: I'd say the quality -- the quality is higher at Stanford, primarily because of things we introduced.
So, for example, we introduced a set of freshmen seminars. There's a small seminar. Every single freshman can enroll in one, 15 students and a faculty member, and it's really meant to be an engaging intellectual experience. You meet a faculty member up close, you get to see they're real people, not monsters, you know, all the kinds of things you like. That obviously costs more money. Now, we raise most of the money to support that, but it adds to the cost.
I think in general there was a lack of attention on undergraduate education, and that starting in about 1990 began to see a return to the roots of high quality undergraduate education in the research institutions. So, that's gotten better.