HIGH STAKES

Why Elite Colleges Aren't Always The Answer

The stakes are high, and the critical questions to ask before placing your bet are which college and what major, and how much debt those are worth.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beasy

It’s that time of year again, when a new cohort of graduating high-school seniors finalize decisions on which college they will attend come fall. As colleges sell their worth and endless rankings are released in a dizzying array of information leading to the May deadlines to deposit, the hype makes it increasingly difficult for families to pierce the noise and understand what is truly at stake.

There are so many colleges in so many categories and at such different price categories that many families don’t know what to ask, or how to value what they find. But, first, let’s be clear about a central point and ask who we are really talking about. The reality is that the average college student is not someone right out of high school attending a four-year college and living on campus in dorms.

In fact, the average student is closer to 26 and more likely to attend a community college or a regional state institution while they live at home and work part time. They are also more likely to take six years to graduate not four — that is if they graduate. They are much more dependent on federal and state financial aid, scholarships and auto-dealer-style “discounts” to list prices than previous generations of students. For many, college will be the most expensive investment they make.

So offering college advice only to a select few, who almost by definition don’t really need it, is dangerous. That said, there are some things all college-going students and their families should be considering.

Education economists W. Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson coined the term “the education gospel” to analyze the widely marketed and held belief that education is salvation, the means and end to a successful life rolled into one. College is where many place all their hopes and dreams in the belief that it is worth every and all sacrifices.

College in fact is worth many sacrifices to many people, but the key is to consider the cost and value of each one. A recent study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce showed that someone with a BA or BS earns on average 84% more than someone without one — which comes to about a million dollars over a person’s life. The stakes are indeed high, and the critical questions to ask before placing your bet are which college and what major, and how much debt those are worth.

First, not all colleges are the same, but the difference has as much to do with who they attract as what they offer those students. The graduation rate at the 500 most selective colleges and universities is 82%, compared to 49% at community colleges and four-year open access institutions. This doesn’t mean what we’re often told it does, that if you go to one of those select colleges you will be better situated. You might be. But, what it really shows is that the students who were the most prepared and scored the highest on college entrance exams (and hence get into these selective colleges) graduate at higher rates and on time compared to other students who were less well prepared.

An interesting point is that the students who matched the profile of these top-tier college students but who didn’t attend top-tier colleges also graduated at very high rates. It would seem then that preparation matters more than which college you attend. The takeaway is that if you are a student who graduated near the top of your class and scored high on your SAT/ACT you are likely to do well wherever you go, and the question you should ask about more expensive, selective colleges is what added value they’re offering you. If the answer isn’t clear, it may not be the right choice.

But what about the majority of students who are not as well prepared, the majority? Evidence shows that they need more guidance and a more personalized educational experience — i.e. handholding. So, colleges that can offer these services are likely good fits. But, one has to balance that need with the financial realities. Here student faculty-ratios matter, but so do support systems such as advising centers, tutoring services and career counseling. These things exist at most every college. So do a tour and ask to see these spaces to see how over-crowded they are. That will indicate how usable they will be when you need them.

Most students might have to borrow to attend college, but loans are not necessary a bad thing. You need to ask if it is worth it. If you think of it as an investment and it is necessary for you to graduate, or maintain progress towards degree, then it makes sense. The problem is that too many students end up owing loans for a college from which they never graduate. Look up how much debt students at particular colleges have on their webpage. Look up that state’s average and compare to see how that school stacks up. It’s truly telling.

What about what you major in? It matters, but less than you think. While it can be easy to denigrate anthropology, philosophy or art history, the reality is that the top 25% of those majors will out earn the bottom 25% of engineering majors over a lifetime. The key is to study something you can excel in, and that makes you excited. That really means do what you love. If you love it, you will do well. If you are an okay accounting major, but a superstar English major, you might have a better economic future going with English in the long run, not to mention a better experience as a student. Don’t underestimate the career potential of a humanities major such as philosophy as they outearn many more business or professionally-focused majors over the course of a lifetime,

So, if you are a well prepared student, were you go matters, but not as much as you think. If you are underprepared, then go to a school that has the resources needed at a tuition that is affordable. Don’t borrow too heavily as you might not finish and will have to carry the student loan debt with you.

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College should lead to a meaningful career and employment, no doubt. But college should also be more than job training. What college does well is provide the means to achieve your first job, but more importantly, the ability to propel you beyond that first job. Look at the available data on how well college graduates do ten years out to give you a more meaningful way to consider the range of likely outcomes.

As you listen to all the advice and make your decision, remember what you need to do is find the college and major that is the right fit for you. Once you do that, the rest might just fall into place.

Richard Greenwald is Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences and professor of history at Brooklyn College, the City University of New York and author of the forthcoming book Class Dismissed: Higher Education for the Masses, to be published by The New Press in 2018.