What's worth it & Who decides?
When the Editors at NY Times start a debate with the question, 'What is a Master's degree worth?', they are in effect opening up a larger consumer question, 'What's anything worth?' Taking it a bit ahead, 'Who then decides that worth?'
Lets tackle the first question. The worth of any product or service is dictated by the way its evaluated. And evaluations can either use a compensatory or a non-compensatory method. The latter results in a brand being eliminated as not being worth the price should it fail on just one critical parameter. The former method, on the other hand, does not ensure elimination should the brand not come up to the mark on one parameter, as its compensated by its better performance on another.
Let me illustrate. Should my non-compensatory evaluation of a Motor bike brand be dictated by one critical parameter (among a few) called 'Power' and should a brand not meet the minimum cut-off on Power, I would eliminate it from consideration. This despite the fact that it may have scored on 'Design'. On the other hand, if the evaluation method had been compensatory, a lack of power is compensated by great design, and therefore the brand's considered for purchase.
Evaluations are never completely done on rational lines, on objective parameters. That's almost an impossibility. Subjectivity creeps in. For example, my class is never completely evaluated on the learning that I impart. It can even, at times, be based on how well someone performs in it. A poor performance on the part of a student can have him evaluate my class less favorably. Not because I didn't teach well, but because he didn't score well. It takes a lot of character not to be influenced by such subjectivity and to keep the learning rigour going.
To the latter question, the answer is, a brand's worth is decided by its target consumer segment. Not by all sundry. That is, just because someone thinks a brand's not worth it, doesn't mean its not worth the money. That tag's in the hands of only its targeted customer. For instance, I think Bollywood movies are the heights to idiocy. But that evaluation doesn't deem them not worth it. Because they aren't made for the likes of me. To Bollywood fans, the movies are worth the time, money and effort spent in watching them. Of course that again doesn't mean all Bollywood movies are acceptable to its consumer segment. There are surely movies that aren't worth it.
I have seen consumers relegating certain brands to the blazes because they believe those brands aren't worth it. Yet these brands, still rule markets. That's because their intended consumer segments find them to be more than acceptable. And so they buy and even buy again. Like the movie 'Transformers II', panned by critics, its currently ruling the Box Office. Deadline Hollywood Daily's Nikki Finke reports that 'Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen' broke the Wednesday opening record previously held by 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix' in 2007: $55M to 44.2M.
Way to go, 'Transformers'! The critics can go watch a French movie.