I am already fretting about where my four year old will go to college. David Frum, also touring colleges with his son, is even more worried than I am. My parents worried like crazy over where my sister and I would go to college.
There’s a good argument that all of this is a waste of energy.
In fact, college admissions get far more attention than they deserve. Because members of Congress, the media, and um, certain bloggers are concerned about these things, they are a topic of public discussion. But most people—even those who consider themselves upper middle class (my in-laws, for example)–don’t think that much about where in particular their children go to college.
Here are the facts: while most students want to go to college and most parents want their children to do so, most students select between the public institutions reasonably close to home. Only about 100 colleges in the entire country (out of more than 4,000) are competitive enough that they will generally reject a student who has taken a standard college preparatory curriculum, earned a B average, and received above-average SAT scores. A majority of colleges take everyone with a local high school diploma and even some truly elite schools like St. John’s College accept almost everyone they believe can do the (intense) work. So most Americans, when getting ready to go to college … just go.
Going to the “right” college is very important for certain things: if you want to work at a well-known think tank, join certain firms, or become a college professor yourself, going to a “name-brand” college matters quite a lot. But it has almost no impact on lifetime earnings: after adjusting for standardized test scores (essentially, IQ) and one’s parents’ socio-economic status, the income-related consequences of where one goes to college vanish at least for white Americans. (There’s some data showing a meaningful income consequence for African-Americans but even this is muddy.) In certain fields, politics for example, going to an elite school probably puts one at a disadvantage.
Tuition isn’t nearly as high as scare stories have it either. In-state public college tuition (which is what about 75 percent of all students pay) averages $7,500 a year and, for people from the economic bottom, the $5,550 Pell grant and a summer job covers it in full. This doesn’t cost living expenses but, of course, living expenses have to be paid whether or not one is in college. College tuition has, indeed, risen sharply in recent years but a $250,000 four-year bill is simply the “sticker price” at elite, private schools and almost all schools that charge this much hand out financial aid to those who can’t afford the sticker price.
Except at a few really rich schools, furthermore, a lot of financial aid is recycled from tuition dollars paid by the wealthy. This, for all intents and purposes, means that tuition is just discounted in many cases. Colleges, internally, call this a “discount rate”—which it is.
College attendance matters a great deal. Earning a BA is, increasingly, necessary to make it into the middle class. But college admissions and tuition costs, honestly, just aren’t as big a deal as they’re made out to be. Where one goes to college in particular does matter but the ways in which it matters—largely access to particular jobs– aren’t things that ought to be of concern to public policy makers. Most Americans, when getting ready to go to college, just go. And that’s the way it should be.