Thursday, April 14, 2011

Choices About Colleges and Universities

It is that time of year--when high seniors have to decide what to do.  And this is when parents* have to figure out what they can afford.  The NYT has been covering the entire process with the latest entry on figuring out what to do when one has a choice.
* This applies to the US.  In Canada, there is not the same kind of cultural expectation that parents pay for the kids' university education.

But it ignores the big question--what is really worth paying for?  Is there a qualitative difference between schools that justify spending thousands, tens of thousands, more dollars?  A follower of this blog asked me to consider this process.  Believe me, I am, both because I am concerned about the "business model" of my profession and as a parent of a high school student.

For me, the big question is of size: do I want my kid to go to a large research school, like the places where I have taught, or a small liberal arts college, like where my wife and I went?  And does a potential cost difference overwhelm the benefits of going small?  I think one can get a good education at a large school especially if one wants to get into a specialized kind of major that is not offered at a smaller school, but that the students are better off in a smaller school on average where they can actually get to know the profs and the students are viewed less as an inconvenience for the profs.

I am sure my life would have turned out fine if I had gone to a bigger, public school such as Penn State, although I would not have met this particular wife.*  But my experience would not have been as positive, I think.  I would not have known the profs, they would not have known me.  I would not have gotten the advice I would have used to choose my next steps, and I may have been turned off from this business of profess-ing.  I didn't end up doing what the folks I admired did--I didn't end up at a small school, but I have come close enough.  But that was the market at work, not my original intentions.
* Thus, I prefer the choices I made.  And the ones my parents could help me with.

Of course, I am over-simplifying as there are many big schools that are just as expensive as the small ones.  For those, the differences in benefits still exist, but I do have a harder time justifying the expense of additional $100,000 or more over four years.  I do think that the university education is an incredibly important investment, but the prices have gotten so high I am not sure that the debt associated with the highest quality is worth it.  In my mind, the size variable is the key.

We will see what I am compelled to do in a couple of years, because it will be my daughter's preferences that matter the most.  I owe her the education that best suits her.  And it will be her life and thus hers to choose.

1 comment:

Chris C. said...

"I would not have known the profs, they would not have known me. I would not have gotten the advice I would have used to choose my next steps, and I may have been turned off from this business of profess-ing."

The first part definitely isn't true. If anything, the relative paucity of interested, committed students at large state schools works in favor of those who are interested and committed. You can get a superb education with very, very close relationships with professors via Honors Program classes, undergrad research, or just showing up to office hours. I firmly believe (and have good evidence from my friends) that a good self-motivated student can get a great education at pretty much any flagship state school. And that student will likely graduate with far less debt and have tons of more flexibility and freedom to do what they want both during college and afterwards.

But the latter concern may hold more water, though it depends on the department and school. I got some pretty bad advice (albeit lots of encouragement!) about going to grad school from most people and my substantive education in polisci was fairly dated. Lots of interaction with professors may not matter then.

In general though, I'm still amazed at how many people think in terms of averages. While I can see averages mattering in some areas (i.e. networking), what matters far more is the specific experience that the student will get. Smart state schools know how to attract and help good students and they're doing quite well for themselves. I can name a number of specific American state schools that have superb financial deals for top students (although many are quite competitive with acceptance rates below Harvard's).