Thursday, December 23, 2010

In response to NY Times article: "Is going to an Elite College Worth the Cost?"

I thought this was an unfortunate article on so many fronts. The title is perhaps the most regrettable. It takes a very individual decision and reduces the decision to questions of access to power and economic returns. I would have less problem with the article if it had been titled “Is going to a better college worth it” with some exploration as the meaning of better, including prestige, but also things like value added as National Survey of Student Engagement measures. The term Elite colleges conjures up exactly the notions the readers expect, colleges that rate highly in US Lists or that are the best known, most visibly the Ivy League, Duke, Georgetown, Standford, et. al. There is a review of mostly old information, such as Dale and Krueger’s study from 1999 and one compelling study that job satisfaction decreases slightly as selectivity increases. But outside of lip service at the very end of the article on how one takes advantage of what is offered is most important, the article is a repeat of the misconception that the quality of a college is necessarily connected to its reputation, its selectivity or its prestige. The prestige of a college is more often a function of its founding year, its graduate programs or its athletic accomplishments than what is offered at the college. My daughter attends Swarthmore College and it is worth every penny we spend on it. She needs what they offer and she is a different person for having gone there than she would be if she attended a larger or less intellectual school. There was a match between what she needed and what they offered. She has immersed herself in her education and her social world in an extraordinary way. She talks about ideas and has has developed her own view of history, politics, economics,. And yes, she now reads the NY Times. Does this make Swarthmore a better or more elite college because of this? No, It makes it a better place for her. My son, a high school senior who is just as bright and intellectual, would not thrive there. He probably would thrive anywhere, but that is the real problem with this college advising….kids often benefit and grow in surprising ways.

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of this article is that it feeds a phenomenon that has been growing since perhaps era of the first Wall Street movie, of viewing what is an education decision as an economic and instrumental one. In times of economic stress, people are naturally more likely to let immediate economic circumstances interfere with considering long term and less measurable benefits. This is as truly unfortunate in choosing a college as it is with choosing a mate.

I understand that newspaper articles and headlines are written to sell papers. In today’s world, an article which purports to tell us whether paying for an elite college is worth it unquestionably will sell papers. Whether it is productive or responsible is another question altogether.