College, Schmollage

November 21st, 2011 at 10:34 am | 18 Comments |

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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.

Recent Posts by Eli Lehrer



18 Comments so far ↓

  • ottovbvs

    “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. ”

    So let me see if I can follow Lehrer’s reasoning

    1. Where one goes to college is of major importance to accessing certain jobs and professions

    2. $250k college bills only occur at high end private schools….could these be the schools that provide the best entree into jobs and professions mentioned in 1?

    3. This inequality of opportunity that echoes the other wider income inequalities in society and declining social mobility (we’re worse than France) is not a matter that public policy makers should worry about.

  • Stewardship

    Eli is correct that in-state costs for state schools is much more reasonable. I’d still like to see truth in pricing for tuition, room and board. Many of our state schools bill room and board at outrageous amounts. Cramming 4 kids into a room the size of a walk in closet and institutionally prepared buffets should drive room and board costs well below the private sector. But, it doesn’t. My niece attends Central Michigan University. Last, in a campus dorm, the monthly room and board cost was $1,600 (x all four roommates, that was $6,400 per month of revenue for the school). The majority of American families live on far less than that.

    Another factor beginning to get its day in the sun is the actual teaching hours students get for their money. At larger schools, students are lucky to even see a real professor during their first two years. Schools use teaching assistants to drive costs down and to make profs who have outside consulting contracts happy.

    • ottovbvs

      I don’t think anyone disputes that state colleges are cheaper than private ones and much cheaper than the elite private ones. But as you point out that’s hardly the entire picture.

    • Frumplestiltskin

      um…teaching assistants are real teachers (for the most part) and many are better at teaching than some full Professors. And lets be honest, Intro. to Western Civ. doesn’t require a full professor to teach it.

  • PracticalGirl

    Some other facts that CollegeBoard.com (marketing arm of Universities and colleges nationwide), college counselors etc don’t tell parents or prospective students:

    1. 250 billion a year in tuition is paid to US higher ed institutions each year. 100 billion of that was paid for with student loans in 2011.

    Actually, CollegeBoard.com will tell you that, but they won’t make the connection. Regardless of what you think is a “reasonable” cost for education, it’s not affordable for the masses without heavy utilization of expensive credit to be paid back at a time when a young worker is least able to do it.

    2. The end goal- a degree- is actually very elusive, and stats aren’t improving with higher percentages of college students enrolling.

    7 out of 10 Americans don’t have a college degree by age 27. This hasn’t changed in decades, and yet 80% (plus or minus for any given year) of high school graduates make the decision to go to some sort of college out of the gate. 50% of them will drop out their freshman year…With debt from a solution sold to them as the “only one” regardless of interests, ability, or maturity.

    So- no appreciable change in degrees granted, a 50% increase in student enrollment anyway and college fees that have risen far above inflation in the last 30 years. $350-$750 per semester was a standard state school tuition charge then. Now, those same schools charge $8,500 on average. Can you think of another product that has gone up in costs as dramatically as tuition while the success rate of said product has remained flat?

    • Demosthenes

      Can you think of another product that has gone up in costs as dramatically as tuition while the success rate of said product has remained flat?

      What is “health care.”

  • Fart Carbuncle

    Can you get an accredited degree from an online institution?

    That way you could halt the gouging as well as avoid the liberal professors who indoctrinate their students with leftist kerfluffle.

    • Frumplestiltskin

      quick, go to Phoenix University and send them a big check, and then you will drop out leaving you deep in debt…better that then actually learn something.

      I design online courses on Moodle, it is a good supplement to the classroom but is not a substitute for a classroom. Go ahead and try to learn Chinese online, it would take you years to learn what you would learn in one semester in a class. And even then you could not learn proper pronunciation online, you need an expert teacher to get the tones right.

      Oh wait, this is smarg. You would never consider learning another language, everyone else has to learn English, right? You are such a parasite.

    • PracticalGirl

      You can, but the price tag is $75,000 and up, depending institution on whether you have any credits to transfer, the program of study etc. And one of the first conversations you’ll have with them are your financing options- which banks they want too steer you to etc.

      Halt the gouging? HAHAHAHAHA. But you will feed the banks they steer you to, so you’ll still be well within the conservative fold. Unless you care about jobs protection…Not very many people needed to run an online degree mill.

    • Redrabbit

      These days, many employers are (in my mind, very wrongly) placing a huge premium on ‘social’ skills and ‘soft skills’. That is certainly not something you can get from a primarily online experience.

    • The Walking Eye

      I have taken over 200 college credits (thanks to two B.S. degrees and a MSABE) and I seriously cannot recall a liberal professor attempting to indoctrinate me or even saying anything in a class where the topic wasn’t related. I have, probably 3-4 times, had a right wing professor toss out comments in engineering and economics courses though.

      But, then I go to a state school and research institution and not the small liberal arts school you clearly have in your head as the way all colleges are.

      • Crime Dog

        I went to one of those elite northeastern liberal arts schools and even though most of my professors were liberal (with the odd libertarian here and there), I wasn’t brainwashed by them. They generally had more criticism of boilerplate liberal opinions than well-reasoned conservative ones. There’s a certain element of modern conservatism that seems to think that people can’t act without their political biases leaking out. I know that’s the case at Fox News, but it is not the case in the real world, among liberals or conservatives.

        • The Walking Eye

          I realize now that my last comment there may have been a little rude. Let’s add “in the movies” to that so it’s not condescending to Liberal Arts Colleges.

  • Frumplestiltskin

    “I am already fretting about where my four year old will go to college.” Good lord get a grip. Maybe your kid will want to be an auto mechanic or a plumber (the world needs these too)
    I have a 9, 7, and 3 year old, and you can be damn sure I am not worried about that as much as I am worried about the here and now, making sure that they get a good education now, are involved in programs that are suitable for them, and that they are as happy and secure as I possibly can have them be while still giving them the freedom to learn from their own mistakes. I am saving for their future, but it is their future, not mine. If you are deciding where your 4 year old is going to college, you have major control issues.

    • Redrabbit

      If you are deciding where your 4 year old is going to college, you have major control issues.

      I wouldn’t say that. Eli may indeed have control issues, but I have no way of knowing that, and this post isn’t much of an indication. Bear in mind just how extreme the ‘track’ system, if you will, has become. Some parents, and educators, really do think that what preschool a child goes to will have major implications for students later in life. The best preschool, the best private prep schools, the best 4 year, the best grad program, the best internships, and be sure to do all the other right things like making sure the kids eat plenty of omega 3 foods, whole grains, raw nuts, fresh fruit, take yoga, have the most intellectually stimulating toys, participate in ALL the right extra curriculars, and on and on and on and on and oh lord.

      Plenty of parents do this. But I don’t think it’s about being control freaks at all. Most have sincerely, if naively, bought in to the idea that if they don’t prepare their kids in this manner then they will be at a genuine disadvantage later in life.

      If you want to get your kids in to the best elite schools, and are NOT coming from a position of legacy admissions or enough money to just buy their way in, then this makes sense. Well, maybe it does not make sense, but I can’t exactly fault the parents who think it does, because they’ve been sold this line for years now.

      What these parents really need to consider is the following;

      1.Only a small number of potential careers TRULY benefit from an ivy league education and a lifetime spent in private schools and winning awards and all that jazz. Seriously, you could probably count them on one hand, two at the most. Another FF post actually gets at this, I believe.

      2.There is no way of knowing for sure that your child will WANT to go in to any of those careers.

      If your kid ends up being set on working for as a hedge fund manager, or working at a think tank, then an ivy league pedigree will probably be very beneficial. Likewise for certain fields. As I understand it, if you are going for law or business, you might want to go to an elite school.

      BUT, if your kid wants to be a scientist, engineer, accountant, or wants to work in design, the arts, education, social work, or even some parts of academia, then going to a decent State U will probably be the best choice.

      • Frumplestiltskin

        “Plenty of parents do this.” Then plenty of parents are nuts (figuratively) “But I don’t think it’s about being control freaks at all.” You could be right, it does seem pretty borderline though as you must admit. I admit I exaggerated a bit with Eli because I can’t imagine he really is sitting there analyzing ivy league catalogues, I was basically poking fun at his own hyperbole.

        I taught in China for a long time, they have far more of a tracking system then the states, but it is based on ability. It does, however, start at Junior High school, pre-school, kindergarten, and elementary are all single track though millions of parents have after school activities for these age groups.

        For my own children I am not obsessing about the “best preschool” though I admit a good preschool is and should be an essential for EVERY child in America, my son went to a very good one and is now achieving outstanding grades because he started school ready for school. But his preschool was not prestigious, it was a public pre-school that was run by outstanding administrators and teachers.
        As to the rest, good diet, exercise, fun after school activities, and language instruction (my children are being raised tri-lingual, Spanish, English, and Mandarin) should be enough.

  • Rob_654

    Another option that plenty of folks I know took, including myself, is attending a Community College to complete the first couple of years of college and then transferring to a 4 year University to complete a B.S. degree. Simply attending a Community College can shave a lot of money off of the total bill, even if you end up attending a local 4 year public University.

    Also, I would recommend that students and parents take a long look at what the student will graduate with a major in…

    While I am all for following your passion, etc… If you want to spend a ton of money to go school, and you don’t have someone paying for it, you may want to look at a major that will offer some decent job prospects and pay even if they are a lot harder than other majors…

    • TJ Parker

      Your advice seems decades out of date. With a few exceptions (like in NYC) community college is remedial.