Saturday, August 20, 2011

In Defense of Elite Private Colleges

I've posted several times about the value of attending college.  I've even written some advice on choosing a college.  At the risk of beating this topic into the ground, I am compelled to respond to what I consider to be an ill-conceived article about why elite private colleges are not worth the money.  The article starts with the following premise:

"If you’re the parent of a high-achieving high school student prepared to spend whatever it takes to send your kid to an Ivy League college, authors Claudia Dreifus and Andrew Hacker have some unlikely advice: Don’t do it."

The main issue that I have with the article is that it perpetuates the dual myths that elite private colleges are more expensive than their public brethren and the education you get at an elite private school is no better.  I am here to inject some logic into this debate.

First of all, many elite private schools don't cost more.  Of course, if you compare what I call the sticker prices, Princeton's total cost($52,670) is higher than Rutgers' ($24,017 for NJ residents).  Therefore, I could see why, on the surface, one might conclude that Princeton costs more than Rutgers.  It doesn't take an Ivy League graduate to know that $52,670 is greater than $24,017.  However, the operative word in this discussion is sticker price.  Just as with car buying, most students don't pay the sticker price at Rutgers.

Princeton has an aid estimator which allows you to put in your financials and get an estimate of how much you will be expected to pay.  I entered information for a hypothetical family of four where the parents make $150,000 combined and $50,000 in non-retirement savings.  According to the aid estimator, such a family would be expected to contribute $28,300 towards college.  The rest would be covered by grants provided by Princeton (no loans, no work-study).  That is a mere $4,000 more than what they would shell out for Rutgers!  My example family isn't what you would call destitute either.  They are probably in the the upper middle class by most peoples' standards.  However, they would end up paying slightly more for a Princeton education than they would for a Rutgers education.  Families earning less obviously would end up paying less.

Princeton isn't alone in offering such lucrative aid packages.  Other Ivies have similar aid structures.  Consider the myth that a elite private college education is more expensive than a public education busted!

As far as the quality of education not being worth the money, the rest of the article gives reasons why the elite schools will not give you a good education.  Most of these reasons are sheer nonsense.  I'll address some of them:

Research universities are no place for undergraduates.  I do agree with this to a certain extent.  Most universities offer tenure based not upon teaching prowess but on the amount of research dollars brought into the school's coffers.  However, this problem is not limited to private elite colleges.  Most large public universities are also slaves to the old publish or perish mentality.  According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, three of the top five universities receiving the most research money are public universities.  Interestingly, there is not a single Ivy League school in the top five.

Colleges are overrun by administrators.  Again, this is not something that is exclusive to private elite schools.  I am not sure how this figures into the discussion at all.

The star professors touted in college brochures probably won’t be teaching your kid.  I don't have any statistics to prove or disprove this specific statement, although I would imagine that a star professor at any school, public or private, probably has a lighter teaching load. 

Your tuition may be subsidizing a college president’s $1 million-plus salary.  Ohio State's president made $1.6 million in 2009.  Harvard's president only made $775K.  Again, this is not exclusive to private schools.

High-powered athletic programs drain money from academics.  This seems like an argument against large public institutions.  How many large public universities have huge athletic departments?  Heck, the University of Texas (a public institution the last time I checked) is in the process of launching its own sports television network.  I don't even know if M.I.T. even has a football team (editor's note:  a quick google search shows that they apparently do).

As far as the overall quality of education goes, there are many good public universities, so it is hard to generalize about the quality.  However, one thing to consider is that public universities are subsidized by the taxpayers of that state.  The news regarding the financial situation of many states is grim.  With public pressure to cut budgets while simultaneous keeping tuitions affordable, something has to give.  That could mean cutting programs, increasing class sizes, and generally trying to do more with less.  I would imagine that the gap between the elite private schools and public universities is going to grow.  I know that if I could pay the same amount to attend Rutgers or Princeton, I would choose Princeton, no doubt about it!

1 comment:

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