* 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.