Reader Request Week 2013 #4: College Education (And Costs Therein)

Steve asks:

You went to a great university. Assuming you support the concept of higher education for your own child, Athena is old enough that you may have started thinking about where she might want to go, or at least, wondering if you have been saving enough for it. What are your thoughts on where to send your child to college, or allow them to attend? How much of the choice should be up to her? Should a parent try and find a way to pay or borrow for the best school to which a child is admitted and wants to attend, even if a really expensive private university like Yale, Stanford, or heck, University of Chicago? Absent scholarships of some kind, should a parent pay only for the high quality, but cheaper, and perhaps more geographically limiting, state school?

For those who might possibly not be aware, the “great university” I attended was the University of Chicago. Which is, for the record, indeed great — it’s regularly ranked in the top ten of national and international university rankings, has tons of resources, A-list faculty, successful alumni in important places, etc. It was a great place for me to attend and I’ve never had cause to regret going there. It was well worth what I paid for it twenty years ago, and is probably even be worth the $44,500 it costs to go there yearly today.

Athena has started thinking about colleges and we started talking to her about them, but those conversations are private and I’m not going to recount them here. What I will do is say that I tend to be unromantic about four-year colleges and universities. They basically offer two advantages to the students who attend: education and reputation/networks. I’m pretty confident that in a general sense, if one is motivated enough, one can get a good education at just about any accredited school. As for reputation/networks, those are highly variable and contingent, but let’s not beat around the bush here, for this a few schools are substantially better than most, and even among those there is an elite tranche whose reputation/networks are of high enough quality to pay for.

Here in the US, we have public four-year institutions and private ones. Public schools are (generally) less expensive than private schools, and good public institutions are as good as most good private ones, in terms of the education you can get there. Where (some but not all) private schools have (most but not all) public schools beat is the reputation/network thing. But even then, there is a very wide range, and to put it bluntly, in my opinion the majority of private schools don’t have the reputation/network that makes their cost premium worth it, relative to a public education.

Here in Ohio, we’re fortunate to have a number of very good public universities. There’s The Ohio State University, of course, which is one of best public universities in the country (and does perfectly well in overall rankings) and has a very strong overall reputation and network. There’s Miami University, one of the “public ivies,” ranked third best in the entire county for undergraduate teaching, below only Dartmouth and Princeton. Ohio University isn’t bad either. I’m pretty sure my daughter would do just fine at any of those schools.

Presuming my kid has the chops to get in where she wants to go — which I find a reasonable presumption, all things concerned — what I am likely to tell her is this: I’m willing to pay for an elite private institution (think generally but not exclusively the top 25 colleges and the top 25 universities in the US) because their reputations/networks are worth the additional expense in long run. But outside of those schools, why would I pay $40,000+ for a private school when I can pay $10,000 for Ohio State or Ohio University, or only slightly more for Miami University? The value add — the reputation/network — isn’t there in almost all those cases.

And yes, while we pay lip service to the idea of fitting the student to the exactly right school, I’ve gotta tell you, an additional $120,000 or so over four years for “the exact right fit” seems like a lot. And while barring a sudden reversal of fortunes we are in the happy position of not having to worry about how we’re paying for my daughter’s college, most people in the US are not in the same situation. How much is “an exact right fit” worth? Is it worth tens of thousands of dollars a year in non-dischargable educational loans? I have to tell you, unless it’s Harvard or Yale or Amherst or Pomona (or the University of Chicago) or other schools on that level, where the name and networks are going to open lots of doors, I’m not convinced.

There are always exceptions and caveats and so on and so forth (scholarships help, too). But generally speaking, unless you’re getting a hell of a reputation and network to go with that private school tuition bill, if I were a parent or a student, I’d be asking what, exactly, I’m getting out of that extra up to thirty grand a year I’d have to pay over the perfectly good education a motivated student can get at an arguably less glamorous but otherwise capable public institution. If you don’t have a good answer for that, think of everything else you can do with that $30k, or, alternately, how much less debt you/your kid will have to service.

I think a college education is awfully important for most folks today and I encourage people to get at least a BA, if nothing else because that degree opens a lot of otherwise closed doors, employmentwise (I also see value in trade vocations as well, but that’s another discussion entirely). But college is like anything: it’s easy to overpay if you don’t know what you’re doing. What I really suggest is that parents and prospective college students have as good a grip as they can on what they’re looking for, what they can afford, and what they’re going to get out of any one school and whether it’s worth the money (hint: Don’t just take their word for it).

A college education is worth paying for, and worth investing in. But not worth overpaying for, or overleveraging one’s future over.  Get educated about the education (and anything else) you’re putting money into. That’s what I would say.

85 Comments on “Reader Request Week 2013 #4: College Education (And Costs Therein)”

  1. I went to a tiny liberal arts college which cost a fortune, and didn’t have much name-brand reputation. (It’s acquired more since.) It was worth it for me; I had scholarships that covered a lot of the cost, and the small class size was absolutely vital to my academic success. I think if I’d gone to one of the huge universities that believe in the abomination known as “weeder” courses, I wouldn’t be half as interested in academics as I am today. (Namely, trying to pursue it as a career myself.)

    That said? I’m not sure I’d really recommend it to most other people looking at college now, for exactly the reasons listed by Scalzi above. If a kid is already used to big classes taught by harried underpaid teachers, they’ll be able to tough it out through the first few years until they can get into the upper-division classes where cool things happen. (And apparently some private colleges charge the huge amounts and still stick you in enormous lecture hall classes designed to make a portion of the class drop, which boggles my mind.) Right now I’m in an enormous state university, and I’m getting that high-quality education at a fraction of the cost of my undergrad work done a decade ago. Definitely the best choice now.

  2. Thank you for the great answer. Your daughter is about the same age as my oldest child and I’ve been thinking about this issue. You have stated well and clearly what I think has been vaguely clanking around in my head for a while. I will say that being an alum of Notre Dame Law School opened a significant door for me (Notre Dame’s network value probably exceeds its reputation by a bit). I certainly desire to give my kids such, if not even greater, advantages.

  3. I attended Yale and worked at Yale, Stanford, Chicago and the University of Denver. I agree with John’s assessment of both the ability to get a good to great education at most accredited places, as well as the value of elite private/public reputational effect. Only other thing to add would be the relative value of regional reputation. That is, if you or your kid knows they want to be in a specific geography, some schools have highly regionalized but very strong reputations and networks — so take that into account as well.

  4. John, yours is a view shared by many, and one that has gotten many in the business of higher education wondering about the impact of things like higher tuition. A few thoughts and observations,

    People may be willing to pay the big bucks for reputation and/or connections. In the 1970s, Boston schools like Boston University, Boston College and Northeastern University had served a large number of working-class and commuter students. Now, they have extensive campuses, and high tuition to match. Is it worth it, assuming that you can get in? (Some would argue that it’d be worthwhile to pay tuition in excess of $40K at a school like Northeastern, because of its co-op programs.) Boston University started to market itself more overseas, and that has allowed them to ask for tuition since the better-off families of other countries see that an American education could provide meaningful experience regarding a country with such influence in the worl.

    Then, there’s on-line education. At a minimum, it’s made available education to people for whom showing up to a class, at a particular time, has been problematic, whether because of family, work or military commitments. I’ve had students who are serving in Afghanistan, which has meant that a population of motivated learners can earn a degree according to their particular circumstances. Having taught on-line for over a dozen years, at more than a half-dozen schools, I’ve seen a great interest in quality control, so that while on-line cannot duplicate the in-person experience, students can get education that has a comparable academic rigor to that of in-person.

    Even with on-line, there’s been a trend to reduce costs further, through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), where class enrollments can number in the hundreds and students work at their own pace to qualify for academic credit.

    Overpricing may likely lead to some retrenchment. For example, there are over 200 some law schools in this country, yet the legal profession has had fewer of the kinds of jobs that would justify the debt that comes with taking out student loans to pay high law school tuition. Even back in 2009, one law school dean told me that there would be some schools that would close due to lack of enrollments; the reverse has happened, but there hasn’t been the kind of job growth that would lead to support to such an increase in lawyers. (which accounts for why I’ve been teaching in higher education for over twenty years).

    The public schools understand that a market exists to provide a challenging education. At UMass Amherst, for example, the Commonwealth College program works with those who might otherwise be called honor students at other campuses (like at UMass Lowell) so that they do get an excellent education at a cost perhaps a quarter of what it costs to attend a Big Boston Name school.

    Finally, there is the issue of adjunct faculty. Like any business seeking to reduce its costs, schools have come to rely on a large number of adjunct faculty to produce flexibility. But few of the students that I’ve taught, at over twenty colleges, know that I’m an adjunct, getting paid per class, with no job security. That’s meant that I might teach six courses (and sometimes more) per term, to be able to make a decent wage. I don’t know that I’m necessarily a better or worse instructor than someone who is full-time faculty, but I do know that it’s tough to get really good at creating the right kind of class environment for students to get the most out of their class time if I lack the opportunity to improve upon my methods because I might teach a class once, once every few years, or once a term.

  5. Scholarships are weird. You should definitely apply to private schools. Most of them have strong alumni networks that can afford to offer grants and scholarships to deduct from the sticker price. I was about to go to one of those ‘top 25’ schools because of the grant I received … AFTER I was accepted. As a note, this wasn’t the only private school that offered me significant scholarships. In the US, public schools are having their funding slashed right now. My sister is at a public school, and the ability to offer more than nominal scholarships just aren’t there. Also, there are many private schools that don’t spend money on large-scale athletic programs, so more of that money goes into academics. One reason that turned me off to state schools is the outlandish focus they put on their sports programs. Yes, this exists at private schools (it’s something I’ll probably just have to suck it up and deal with in grad school), but I didn’t like the ‘rah rah’ sports focus of the large public universities.

  6. Yay Pomona! Such a tiny (but great) school to be included in that elite list. Added benefit of being in sunny SoCal!

  7. My wife and I have been looking into this with our daughter, who is a high school sophomore. In many state university systems (California is a good example), out-of-state tuition has climbed over the last several years to the point where it’s actually more expensive than Harvard (by $3,000/year in 2010 for USC).

    At this point, our strategy is multi-faceted:
    1) She’s pursuing as many classes as she can handle that offer some sort of college credit (some offer both high school and college credit, others are AP courses with a separate exam).
    2) Her public high school is totally on the ball for helping students identify potential scholarships they will be eligible for based on current activities. As a result, she’s going to be continuing to pursue her karate studies through high school — she can get a surprising amount of scholarship money for being a black belt before she graduates high school, especially where she’s helping teach young children. Her church activities may also lead to additional scholarships.
    3) We are strongly encouraging her to pursue community college to acquire her associates degree and then examine transfer opportunities. Our research indicates that this usually only takes a year off the time at a four-year school, but that’s a valuable year — and gives her the option of taking a break between high school and college for some life experience (backpacking across Europe, Peace Corps/Job Corps/being a waitress and living in her own apartment with her friends). As far as we can tell, it’s the college you get your degree from that matters for networking, and transfers can have an easier time getting in rather than competing with all the other ambitious freshmen.
    4) Continue to research her intended programs and schools. The previous strategies may not be right for her — but waiting until her senior year to start the winnowing process is clearly no longer a viable option.

  8. One thing to remember about the top-tier private schools: Because they have large endowments, many of them effectively charge on a sliding scale based on what they think you can afford to pay. The stated tuition is just the top of the scale, the sticker price if you will. If your family makes little money, though, and you get in, you could end up paying little or nothing after financial aid is applied.

    Given what our host has said in the past about his income, he might still end paying fairly close to full freight if Athena goes to one of these schools. But families that make less might find that they’d pay less enrolling their kid in a top school (if he or she makes the admissions cut), than they would by enrolling them in a lower-tier school where the aid budget isn’t as lavish. Unfortunately, a lot of lower-income families don’t realize this, and don’t even think of applying to top-tier schools their talented kids could get into and attend for free or nearly free.

  9. I’m a fellow University of Chicago alum (I was a couple of years behind you, I think). I came from a relatively modest background and went through on a full tuition scholarship. I am not sure I would have gone there without the scholarship, but I am very glad I went to the U of C. I have friends who went to my state school, and they have done really well, so like you, I don’t think the experience of going to a top university is the one and only way to success. But for me, the U of C was absolutely perfect. There would have been other perfect schools, too- I no more believe in “one true school” than I believe in “one true love”- but there were also other schools that would almost certainly have led to a much less successful life for me. Which is not to say that they lead to less successful lives for all their graduates, not by a long shot. I just think that I really needed an educational experience like the one I got at Chicago.

    The thing about Chicago and schools of its ilk is that it forces a certain level of education and challenge. I could have sought out and obtained the same level of education and challenge at my state school, but I also could have skated by and never been forced to challenge myself and see what I could do if I really put my mind to it. I am not sure I would have had the self-confidence to seek out the challenges on my own when I was 18. I grew up in an area where women weren’t really expected to go on and have careers. True story: when I told my classmates where I was going to college, one of them asked me if I was going there to meet a rich man to marry. My parents supported me and encouraged me, but the rest of my environment basically viewed me as someone who would have babies some day. Another true story: one of my most mathematically talented classmates used to joke about how useless calculus would be for her when she finished high school and had a family, since all the math she’d really need to do was scaling recipes up or down. So I think I needed a kick in the pants to take myself more seriously and believe in my intellectual capabilities. The experience I got at Chicago set me on a different path, and I’ve sought out challenges ever since, confident I could master them. That has served me very well.

    People often tell me I seem very confident in career settings. I tell them (1) sometimes I’m faking it and (2) the seeds for what confidence I do have were planted in college. My kids are a long ways away from the college decision, so I haven’t really thought about what guidance I’ll give them on that decision. But I do try to guide them to challenge themselves.

  10. I agree with John in the general sense; however, networking/reputation can be quite relative based on one’s chosen major.

  11. Miami grad here. I taught at a private college ($40,000+ per year tuition) and the quality of the students was not as high as what I encountered at my alma mater. That’s another factor to consider; even if you are at the top of the your class, if the majority of your fellow students would rank at the bottom somewhere more competitive, you probably aren’t pushing yourself as hard as you should. At Miami, the profs were very open about trying to weed out students freshman year. I had a geology prof that graded on the curve and only gave out three As and always gave out three corresponding Fs no matter the score. This was twenty years ago, things may be more subtle now.

  12. As a soon to be grad (two more finals, woo!) I’d second everything here. My situation up in Canada is quite different from the states, particularly around tuition, but the idea that you get out what you put in is spot on. Different schools/faculties/programs will have higher or lower floors depending on their difficulty, but the thing to remember is that no matter where you are there’s effectively no ceiling. If something interests you, and you’re willing to work at it, you can find someone to teach you.

    That said, I think there’s two further points that might recommend some of those ‘mid-tier’ schools. One is the number of people that don’t finish a degree in the nominal amount of time it’s supposed to take. Sometimes it’s as simple as losing focus for a term, and if paying an extra 20% tuition gets you a program that holds your interest and gets you out on time, that seems easily worth it. The hard part is knowing for sure what the right program is, of course…

    The second point is co-op. It by no means makes sense for everyone, but if you’re looking at some sort of technical degree (particularly Engineering or Computer Science) it’s a huge difference. Like I mentioned, I’m graduating in a few weeks. Thanks to co-op, I have two years of (relevant) work experience, a job lined up in my field, and no debt. Even leaving aside career considerations, being able to see how concepts are applied in the real world vs. classrooms/labs is incredibly useful. Again, much harder for people who aren’t in technical fields. But for anyone who is, it’s huge.

  13. I’ll agree almost completely with all that you said, with the slight caveat that, if you know what you are going to major in, then the list of Top 25 schools can change significantly. Some of the schools that are not as generally highly ranked can have pockets of excellence that would be well worth exploiting. As with everything, it pays to know your subject and do your homework before making a major decision.

  14. Scholarships are definitely weird. You could make an argument that scholarships and federal grants/loans are the reason for the rise in tuition.

    As someone who has also gone to a top tier school, I think the social/network is some of the most important. Not only with your fellow students but also with the faculty. The faculty challenge may often be that they are brilliant in their field, brilliant at research, but hate teaching. So, an early life lesson for the student of either suck it up and get through it if you aren’t interested or go above and beyond and try to engage at that level.

    In some ways you could also look at the difference between knowing and understanding. I can read an article on Wikipedia and know almost anything. However, to fully understand something, it’s going to take more effort. Similarly MOOCs are probably going to be a great way to provide a common base but if I want to pursue something new and innovative and explore possibilities, that level of interaction is not likely to happen at a 1000:1 or really even a 20:1 ratio.

  15. I like your thinking on this subject. I went to Case. Not Case Western Reserve University but Case Institute of Technology (just at the merger). For a good small private engineering school it can’t be beat. For a liberal arts college I don’t know if I would pay that kinda money these days. For me tuition alone it was 12K per year, and now it is over 40K – that is one big hunk of money. Any parent who does not consider all the options as you have so wonderfully expressed must have more money than brains.

  16. I don’t necessarily disagree with Mr. Scalzi, but as someone closer to the process (my daughter is off to college this fall), I can share a bit about our decision process. One, the cost of attending the state flagship U (University of Washington) was more than $10K a year; even tuition was more than $10K a year, and had been rising fast. The school estimates of yearly costs for in-state residents were about $27K. For that, you’d get lecture classes as big as 700 students, and would have to apply further to get into your major further down the road (and some majors, like computer science, turn away many qualified students.) UW is an excellent unversity, but like all public research universities, it’s getting slammed by budget cuts. There is no guarantee that class size situations and tuition increases wouldn’t get worse.

    Or, I could spend double that, and send my daughter to Whitman College, a highly rated SLAC, where it wouldn’t be possible to have a class as large as 700 because there are only 1500 students at the school. For my daughter, and our financial situation, it was a better option.

  17. Went to Oberlin for undergrad stuff and Miami (Ohio) for grad work. That’s quite a spread in environment. Oberlin is a small (very) liberal arts school and Miami is a relatively large (15,000+) student public university.

    Both are in “dry” towns. Keeps the hijinks down a bit. The greek environment at Miami kinda undoes that for the undergrads. On the other hand, the only place to get a beer at Oberlin was in the student union. So much for my priorities.

    Just for grins: Oberlin, even though it has a world-famous conservatory, does NOT have a marching band. Some of the students took matters into their own hands and formed the Obie Marching band. This consisted of one snare drum and 50 kazoos. They weren’t very loud, but they were reasonably good at the on-field formations.

    Also for grins: One of the guys in our dorm played the bagpipes. It happened that he was also blind and had an assistance dog. He practiced on the football (by himself, except for the dog) at night. It was pitch dark, but what did he care? Up and down he marched. I can still hear it to this day… Weird…

    All of this fun occurred in the late 60’s and early 70’s. I was a teaching assistant (TA) at Miami and didn’t have too much fun.

    By the way, both are excellent schools and can provide a very good education.


  18. Been mentioned briefly above, but I think it bears calling out specifically but another HUGE difference between many public and private schools is class size and access to faculty. Like you said, a motivated person can get a good education anywhere, but depending on your education goals, the paths can be dramatically different between a large and small school.

    I also went to a small liberal arts private college (Alma College) where last i checked they only offer 2 courses that approach 100 students and by the 300- and 400-level, classes of 6-12 students are common. In the sciences, undergrad students regularly participate in research projects (although admittedly, research projects are not as often cutting edge). In other fields, direct relationships with professors ranging from independent studies to co-publications are common as well. At the public university where I work and am completing my Ph.D. (Michigan State) that kind of access and class size is rare outside of graduate students. It may be possible, but it is often the norm at small private schools and typically the exception at large public universities.

    Public universities also realize the benefit, as I know at MSU they are building up their “residential colleges” which are basically small, focused colleges within the larger university in order to try to recreate that small, private college atmosphere and associated benefits.

    Whether that environment is helpful to a student depends on a lot of factors, of course(some may be better off in larger schools based on learning style and career goals), and whether any increase in cost (after factoring in scholarships, grants, and other ways that reduce the “sticker price” as mentioned above for both public and private schools) is worth any difference in benefit.

    Maybe I’m being defensive, but I think reputation/networking is far from the only difference between school benefits. Anyone COULD get a good education at any school, but the difficulty setting varies greatly for different people at different schools.

  19. Just as a very minor correction to Mr. Ganger above – USC (assuming you meant the University of Southern California) is a private – not a public – university. If you looked up their tuition figures, it would be worth double checking on the true public universities before writing them off. I don’t know what current tuition rates are – so your basic point may still be correct – but your one piece of data does not support that point.

  20. I went to Harvard. Class of ’62. At that time both Ted Kaczynski and I could attend on our parents’ middle-class incomes. No longer true. Not clear which of us benefited more from our education. Certainly not clear that it would be a good investment today.

  21. My daughter’s going to a state school (not the most expensive one, either), and once you correct for inflation, her in-state tuition is more than what my parents paid for my first year at a highly ranked private college (in the same league as Pomona). (I went to college during the years of greatest inflation in college prices, so senior year was much more expensive than freshman year.) While I do feel that my education was worth it in various intangible ways, I don’t know that it would be worth the much larger sum it would cost now, as we wouldn’t get financial aid. I’m not entirely sure that my daughter’s college is worth the money, but she’s doing well and we’re not hurting, so cross fingers it really is going to be good for her.

  22. When I was preparing to go to college, I received offers from places like Yale, but my dad refused to let me go out of state. I even received an offer for a full-ride to a school in New Mexico, but he wouldn’t hear of it, so I ended up going to one of the state colleges, at which I received a scholarship that covered tuition. *shakes head* I’m glad you’re willing to support where SHE wants to go :-)

  23. A top-tier school matters, but only for your terminal degree. If your daughter is sure she’s going to get a graduate degree, it doesn’t matter if she goes to Ohio State or Harvard as an undergrad if she’s self-motivated to learn, but it will matter to your bank account! That Yale PhD opens the same doors regardless of where she got her BS.

  24. I was struck by the lack of discussion of what contribution you expect Athena to make to her college education. Your ability to write a check for 100% of the cost shouldn’t end the discussion IMHO. Daughter #1 mortgaged 4 years of her future and accepted considerable risk in order to attend Notre Dame on a Marine ROTC scholarship. Daughter #2 devoted an enormous amount of time and effort to soccer and academics to obtain an excellent (not full except senior year) scholarship to Santa Clara and still worked in the off-season. I think that their investment made the experience more important and valuable to them..

  25. You have to consider the ratio of full time faculty to part time, I think. Especially at a large state school with huge classes most of the time. If your child finds a prof whom he or she loves, but who is gone the next semester, or year, or even two or three years later because that prof was an adjunct, that sort of defeats the connections everyone (including myself) find so important. A mentor is a great thing, and not being able to rely on that mentor being there from semester to semester can be difficult. At some schools, the ratio of full time tenure track faculty to adjuncts (or contingent, or non tenure track…there are a lot of names out there) is upwards of 20/80…and that’s something every parent should be asking the schools their children are investigating. Ask what the ratio is, and why.

    As an adjunct, I strive to provide the absolute best education I can, but I don’t know if I’ll be there next week, or next semester, or even the following year. I’m precarious, and I know it. And my students, most of whom don’t know it, are still getting my all. But I don’t know if I can help a kid who really wants to do X actually do X.

  26. I have to say, I was super happy to be listening to the audiobook of Redshirts driving home in the cold wintry bluster just after Christmas and heard my alma mater mentioned as destiny! If she’s thinking of going there, I can strongly recommend it. It’s the happiest place on earth (and provides a great education).


  27. The paradox of American education is that the BEST is coequal to the best in the world (i.e. Harvard where my father was Cum Laude, Princeton, Yale, Caltech my alma mater, rated #1 in the year for 2 years, MIT, U.C. Berkeley, Stanford, U. Chicago) being on the level with Oxford, Cambridge, U. Edinburgh where my wife earned her first degrees, U. Tokyo, etc.) while the AVERAGE is indeed 3rd World.

    I have seen the middle of the distribution, teaching Astronomy as Adjunct Professor at a community college (cost effective for students, including those concurrently working, and sometimes in their 40s, 50s, or 60s), and Mathematics at a pricey private university (which is Top 10 only in Architecture).

    My son skipped straight from 8th grade to university at age thirteen, earned a double B.S. in Math and Computer Science, Dean’s List, as a State University (cost effective), then a Juris Doctor at age 21 at University of Southern California, so still owes $200,000 in student loans (not unusual for top law schools and medical schools).

    I was a “reverse legacy”, going to the same state University where my son had been undergrad, but in the Teachers College, for my state Secondary School Teaching Certificate (per Federal “No Child Left Behind). I opted to teach in the WORST middle schools and High schools of America’s horribly dysfunctional 2nd largest School District. That convinced me that the paradox of American Secondary School education is that the BEST is coequal to the best in the world (you’ve heard of my alma mater Stuyvesant (4 alumni cabinet-level in Obama administration), and other magnet schools in the public system such as the Bronx High School of Science, which have Nobel Laureate alumni), while the AVERAGE is indeed 3rd World. I taught at high schools that send more students to prison than to college.

    Bottom line: USA has a VERY nongaussian distribution of educational quality and cost. YMMV.

  28. Maybe I’m being foolish, but I felt what I paid for a quasi-Ivy education wasn’t the classroom, but for the educational stuff outside the classroom. Stanford has a quasi-residential feel, and it was the learning (and there was a considerable amount of guided and unguided education education) there that made it worth it to me. A lot of my philosophy and sociological leanings came from that.

  29. Oh, I also want to strongly emphasize what people above are saying about private schools with large endowments. If your parents are poor or lower middle class in terms of income, then an elite private school often costs less than the local state school after scholarships are accounted for. But people don’t know that. Obviously Athena won’t be qualifying for need-based scholarships. but some of the readers’ children might. (My elite undergrad was low cost my first 3 years and entirely free for me my senior year! It came out to much less than the flagship R1 would have cost me.) Don’t not apply to elite private schools if you qualify just because of the cost.

    In fact, there’s been an amazing new study on how to get poor kids with top grades and test scores to apply (and get accepted and get in) to elite schools.

  30. When my son was 3 I started making payments to a GET fund offered at UW. With the help of my mother in law I finished off those payments about a year ago, providing my son with enough units for 4 years at a UW-level university (tuition and fees paid regardless of when). Felt awful proud of this as a Dad, but now I wonder if the son will every aspire for college. Time will tell and he’s still got 5 years before having to make that choice. One thing to learn from all this: you just never know where it’s going to go in the end.

  31. I’m graduating from Wellesley College in May, and honestly I think the environment here is worth the insane amounts of money I’ve paid for it over the past four years. It’s really hard to put a price tag on how much I feel like I’ve grown as a person from the women’s college experience–I know I wouldn’t be as confident, or well-spoken, or have had half the opportunities I’ve had if I’d gone to my hometown public university. (We do Shakespeare here! And we get to play ALL the parts!) That being said, I’ve had IMMENSE financial aid (Wellesley’s footed nearly 80% of the $200k+ bill) and I know it wouldn’t have been possible to come here without it.

    That is one benefit of the more top-tier schools: bigger endowments for better aid. They are more expensive, but they’re also more able to help you pay. Aid was a huge factor in making my college decision, and one of the reasons I chose Wellesley was that they offered me a much better percentage of aid than Rice or Chicago or other schools in my home state.

  32. Something else to consider is the area that campus is set in.

    I’m from a small and fairly well-off community in norther NJ. I chose Northwestern for it’s theatre program as well as it’s location in a major urban area. (cost was not an issue at the time, and I had the grades to get in easily). My voice teacher favored a smaller conservatory program, but I wanted the networking opportunities that a school in a larger city with a thriving non-union theatre scene.

    When my brother asked, somewhat resignedly, where I thought he should go (because apparently everyone else was weighing in) I told him that the actual choice was up to him but I favored something in or near a large city. “Look, you’re from a small town with a pretty homogenous population. College isn’t just about classes and grades. A lot of it is about sorting out stuff like how to take a bus, how to deal with people who are different and how you can learn from them, figuring out how to get a job on your own, etc”. He ended up choosing U Penn, and his freshman year he roomed with (in his words) “the whitest black guy and the least-jewish jewish guy on the planet” – but the point was that he went looking beyond his comfort zone. He ended up president of his fraternity as a Junior, and by senior year had his own apartment. He took advantage of the arts, restaurants, and all the other things a city has to offer. I’m damned proud of him.

  33. I went to Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. It was the PERFECT school for me, and just a little more than I would have liked to pay at the time. I come from a small rural area, and Case was small enough (about 900 in my incoming class) that I flourished. Plus, major geek school. Today, it’s way out of my price range. But I got some great networking (and career advice and career days and resume writing, etc), and Case is very well known in the area, so I can land just about any job by listing Case on my resume.

    But look at all the over-educated people out of work right now… I’m already telling my 3 year old that she doesn’t need to go to a 4-year college. I’d love to see her get an apprenticeship as a plumber :) Service jobs are where the money’s going to be!

  34. I currently teach (and research) at SUNY Albany. In-state, it’s a terrific deal, and *especially* if you have the ability to come in through the Honors College, which gets you the small classes and residential environment. Other places probably have similar options, worth finding and exploring.

    There are some places I’ve seen where I’d be unhappy, or at least concerned, if they were the choice of my kids. UVA, where I got my PhD, was a FABULOUS place to be as a grad student, and C’ville is a glorious location, but the undergrad scene was dominated by money and fraternities. Yale, where I then went to do postdocs and eventually faculty, certainly has its share of rich folks but the focus always seemed to be on ability and a ‘life of the mind.’ I’m not sure how I would know either of those institutions well enough to make such judgements without having been there for several years.

    On the ‘only terminal degree matters’ comment above – not quite. It’s true that the undergrad institution becomes largely irrelevant after you get the PhD or whatever, but (i) it’s definitely a factor in being admitted *into* that top graduate program, and (ii) opportunites for undergrad research, arts projects, or whatever’s field-appropriate, are likely to be differentially available which will strongly affect graduate admissions.

  35. “Sticker price” doesn’t mean much in higher education. What matters is your out-of-pocket cost–and at some private colleges, that actually may be less than a public university. Top private colleges give out a LOT of grants and scholarships, some need-based, some merit-based. Always check out their financial aid calculator (which all schools are now required to have), because you may be pleasantly surprised. A lot of people assume that a 6-figure family income means you have to pay full freight. It doesn’t, necessarily.

    I have two kids in private colleges right now. By applying to good schools where they were just a bit above the average accepted student in their GPA/test scores, both ended up being offered sizable scholarships plus other aid. They’ve been able to enjoy the benefits of a small private college (small classes, individual attention, close community, etc.) for little more than I would’ve paid to send them to Giant State University.

  36. To those saying that only the institution of the terminal degree matters: (1) Not true, in my experience, if the undergrad institution has a “big” enough reputation. People are still impressed by my undergrad institution even though I also have a PhD. (2) It depends on what you mean by “matters.” I view my undergraduate education as more than a credential. For instance, I learned a lot about how to think and argue about ideas in college. I also learned a lot about how to think and argue about ideas in my (science) graduate program. I find that the two sets of things I learned about how to think and argue about ideas are not completely overlapping sets.

  37. I think there’s a certain danger in looking at college as a purely transactional exercise. I don’t work in my major, the career office at the college I graduated from didn’t help me at all in finding a job, and the loans I had when I graduated were substantial. But I don’t regret those years in the slightest, because so much of who I am today came from those years.

    If the point of college becomes churning out workers with specific skill sets, something fundamental will have been lost from higher education.

  38. While this probably only applies to a small number of people, I have to recommend my undergraduate experience. If you are a New York State resident, you not only have access to the SUNY system (which is very good), but also to three out of the seven colleges at Cornell University at state tuition rates. The College of Agriculture and Life Science, College of Labor Relations, and College of Human Ecology are all “land grant universities” and so actually part of the SUNY system. I was in the College of Agriculture and Life Science and while my education wasn’t exactly cheap, my total expenses were less than $20,000/year when I lived off campus. (It was somewhat higher when I lived on campus.) Because of this discount and some help from other relatives, I managed to graduate without myself or my parents going into any debt. It’s a phenomenal deal if Cornell is an appropriate school for the student.

  39. I attended Earlham College, which is a small private liberal arts school that no one’s heard of (Well, you may have, since it’s not far from you).

    Earlham’s tuition is at the high end of the spectrum, but their endowments enable them to be much more generous with grant money, and I think that’s probably true of a lot of private schools–I graduated from Earlham with less debt than I would have accrued at my local state university (I also got a lot of gen eds out of the way at a local community college first, so I was only there for three years–which helped cut costs a bit).

    After graduating, I was a little surprised to learn how much network can deviate from reputation. No one seemed to know anything about Earlham–until I started applying for jobs, and then it seemed like every interview I walked into, I’d hear “Our Chief of Staff/Press Secretary/etc went to Earlham.” I’m guessing that had more to do with it being a private liberal arts school than anything specific to Earlham itself–schools like that attract students with a lot of privilege, and that in turn leads to networks that can outperform the school’s name recognition by a fair margin.

  40. Why limit the discussion to the United States?. There are excellent universities elsewhere with even more gravitas re the networking issue, say Oxford or Cambridge in England. Then there is Scotland, Canada, New Zealand. You get the drift. Any chance Athena will consider her university education out of country?

  41. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll preface this by saying I make my living as a marketing person for a small, private college.

    A state school isn’t always necessarily less expensive than a private. Yes, it is true that the “sticker price” is almost always less at a state school, but nearly all of us privates offer an array of merit- and need-based scholarships and grants. It may also be useful to keep in mind that, in states such as California, the state system doesn’t have the capacity to enroll every student who wants to attend.

    John, you talk about the importance of “fit,” but I would argue that the importance of fit should not be underestimated. It’s more than about fitting in socially; it’s about finding a school that is able to accommodate one’s learning style. For instance, where I work, many of our upper-level courses have fewer than ten students in them, and that’s largely intentional. When our faculty know each of their students’ names, career aspirations, and strengths and weaknesses, it provides opportunity for a more intense and personalized education.

    In addition, an important thing to keep in mind is that an increasing number of high school students have learning disabilities, and these students find themselves in higher education, often without the support they need and to which they are accustom. Most people forget that in order to teach college, one must be an expert in his or her field and do not require actual training in teaching. While they may be able to teach a subject, they may or may not be able to teach PEOPLE… this can be particularly true in large universities and the more well-known privates. Sure, some students can adapt to the way professors teach, but many cannot.

    Where I am, we pride ourselves on having phenomenal teachers in the classroom, as well as an outstanding academic success office that offers tutoring and writing assistance (something many who are entering college are in critical need of) by actual faculty members. We do have peer tutors, but we also have faculty members dedicated to assisting students with acquiring college-level study habits, improving their writing, and generally getting the most out of their education.

    Finally, and perhaps most importantly, gone are the days that one seeks out a liberal arts education simply to become more well rounded. The ultimate goal for nearly all students now is to land themselves in a career they enjoy. Where I work, every student in every major completes an internship every year of study, and many of our majors have additional internship or practicum requirements. This allows students to learn theory, apply this theory to the real world, and then come back and reflect on it with classmates and faculty members. Then they repeat. And repeat again. And then repeat a fourth time.

    Not only does this experience allow students to add impressive experiences to their résumés, but it also allows them to build their professional network. In fact, according to our latest recent graduate survey, more than 40% of last year’s graduating class received a full-time job offer from a previous internship site. That’s HUGE.

    Our sticker tuition is just about $26,500, but I think we provide tremendous value to our students, and we’re less expensive than many other privates. No, not everyone would be a good fit here, and some people would cringe at the idea of being only one of ten students in the class. But a lot of students love it and see tremendous value in it.

  42. Coming from a family that was not in a financial position to pay for college (though they would have if they could have), I nonetheless matriculated to one of the more notoriously expensive private US universities, the University of Southern California. Despite winning a substantial four-year academic scholarship, I still wound up paying quite a bit more than I would have for either the state school at which I was accepted in my home state of Virginia (University of Virginia) or even any of the out-of-Virginia state schools I didn’t apply to and where I would have paid out-of-state tuition for at least the first year until I got residency status in that state. That translated into working two part-time jobs (first as a waiter and report writer, then later as a SQL developer and tech writer) while going to school full time as my scholarship required (and yes, I was allowed to work as long as I maintained a certain GPA, so no, I wasn’t working under the radar). On top of that I still had to take out student loans (though student loan terms in those days were pretty favorable).

    Was it worth it? I’ll be honest, I choose USC because I wanted to live in California, which was undoubtedly not the wisest of motives. On the other hand, it was through the professional and social networking I did at USC that I was offered the opportunity to help start a company that not only allowed me to pay off those loans but also eventually ensured that any children I have will never need to accrue student debt. Would I have made comparable connections at UVA? There’s no way to be certain, but I doubt it for a number of reasons including the relative rarity of such opportunities (let alone ones that succeed), and the start-up culture that was just gaining steam throughout much of California at the time and was simply not present in Charlottesville, Virginia. There were other schools I was accepted to which might have offered similar opportunities, but they’re all private universities, and USC was where I won my scholarship.

    Being a much more efficient visual learner, I could have (and in point of fact mostly did) learn physics and math out of text books. Electives such as my history classes proved more useful, particularly those where the profs engaged the classroom instead of droning through two-decade-old lecture notes. My minor in astronomy involved more hands-on class work that a book couldn’t provide. And there are majors for which learning out a book is simply not possible (theater, for one obvious example). We go to college at least as much to learn about life as we do for academic credentials.

    Without the networking I did at USC, I probably wouldn’t be in a position to pursue my doctorate (certainly not full time). And while my education is now more book-oriented than ever, grad school puts me in touch with other scientists and thinkers, involving me in a community, and opening up internships and fellowships, that, for better or worse, are not open to the uninitiated. In one sense, grad school is an imperfect crackpot filter: not everyone who goes through it is guaranteed not to be a crackpot, and not everyone who doesn’t is a crackpot but, like peer-review, it dramatically lowers the crackpot index at some cost of originality. Now, I happen to think that filter can and should be improved to be less stifling to original thinking, and that’s something I’ll work for in my own academic career.

    The bigger problem, IMO, is that it presents a class barrier that, while not impossible to break through (as my career has shown) is nevertheless still an impediment that costs society by stonewalling many promising underprivileged individuals from the chance to contribute to accredited scholastic communities, while tilting the balance of favor of privileged individuals regardless of merit. I do not believe the right solution is to pay for everyone to earn a doctorate. Among other things, that ignores a crucial element of the problem, the one-size-fits-all education and the prejudiced hierarchy that puts the Ivory Tower above the four-year degree above the BA above community college above trade schools. Which is not to say that a PhD from Princeton hasn’t done more work than a community college graduate, but rather that the fix is not to tell everyone they need Ivy League PhDs. It also ignores the reality of how individuals contribute to society and how they are remunerated. John alluded to vocational education as a viable track. What a lot of people don’t realize is that certain skilled craftsmen and craftswomen can earn more in this economy than many MDs. In part that reflects out broken medical service industry – yes, scorpios, I know, thanks Obama…*sigh* – but the prejudice itself reflects the systematic way in which “blue collar” work is all lumped together as “what you’re stuck with if you don’t get a college degree” and that frankly is sheer bias.

    Ultimately I think higher education needs to evolve with the times and, if it’s to remain relevant to the society its purpose is to serve (preferably not as a cookbook), then it needs to recognize that success is not synonymous with the all-hallowed four-year degree. The clock is ticking on that way of thinking. Now is the time to reform, before the USA looses what remains of its competitive edge derived from its emphasis on an educated populace, near-universal literacy and the economic benefit of an intellectually/mechanically inclined liberal democracy. The rest of the world is not sitting still. If we as a nation want to continue contributing to the future of humanity, let alone improving the lives of as many Americans as possible (including not wasting the potential of the underprivileged), we can’t afford to either.

    Ugh…sorry for the essay. Didn’t plan on having so much to say.

  43. “Ohio University isn’t bad,” he says. Isn’t bad? That’s the best you can do?! You, sir, have deeply offended this OU alum and lifelong Bobcat.

    I kid, of course. The thing about picking these large state schools (I would also mention Bowling Green State University, and Kent State University in that excellent Ohio network) is to remember you’ll get as much as you invest. I suspect that’s true everywhere, but especially so at schools that are so large a person can easily fall through the cracks. It’s also important to consider what you want to study, which can be tricky when you’re a 17-year-old high school senior. If you want to study journalism or another communication science, OU is a good fit. BGSU has a reputation for turning out fantastic educators. Miami University is practically a factory for douchebags, (Sorry, couldn’t resist. Old rivalries.) There’s a lot to consider, but I can say from personal experience that Athena is quite fortunate to have her choice of Ohio’s state universities, if that’s the way she decides to go.

  44. I agree with you. But.

    The quality of the fellow students in your classes makes a difference. I went to a small uber-expensive liberal arts school just shy of Ivy League. For the most part, the faculty and my fellow students were pretty amazing.

    Then I got my first master’s at a state school, in a state where any student with a high school diploma was automatically admitted into the university system if they so desired. And these no-admission-standards freshmen were sometimes in my graduate courses (they ran concurrently; they got undergrad credits and I wrote an extra 10-page paper and got grad credits). Put it this way: when a student in a space history class put down on his quiz that humans had landed a spacecraft on the sun, I knew that the classes were often being taught down to them and not up to the grad students’ level.

    Similarly, I’ve worked at a community college as a librarian. These are accredited programs, but sometimes as many as half the students in any given class were failing out. That means they are not adding to meaningful discussion, which is a big part of education.

    Fellow students matter. I do still agree with you that people shouldn’t go crazy mortgaging their entire futures to attend an elite school, but I think there are tons of accredited schools and programs where students are not getting a good or even adequate education.

  45. I’m not going to plug my alma mater, even though I’m really glad I went there and made lifelong friends during my five years. (I took an extra year to get a teaching certificate — now I design games. Go figure.) John knows where I went, or at least could find out in a hurry, since I don’t exactly hide it, and if he or Athena want to ask me about it, they’re welcome to do so. I just think this is turning into a bit of a recruitment drive.

  46. When you consider all the colleges universities either attended or taught at by myself and various members of my immediate family, I’d say I’ve got a lot of experience on this subject. Big universities, small colleges, public, private, elite (top 5 in the US) and community colleges. As others have already mentioned, the quality of education has a lot more to do than just what goes on in the classroom and there is no clear “best” in any of those metrics. One thing I would recommend for most young people facing this decision today: go to a school where you will fail at least at some level. College should be a time of discovery and one of the discoveries that each of us has to make at some point in life is that sometimes no matter how hard one works, no matter how talented one is, sometimes that isn’t good enough to achieve the goal that we have set. And life goes on. It’s a really tough lesson to learn, and yes, it can push some people to the breaking point, but I think it’s an easier lesson to take at 18 or 20 than at 30, when you have another decade or accomplishments to shore up your feeling of invincibility.

    So I say, as long as you have an external support system outside of the school that you can fall back on for support and affirmation when everything goes to hell, you should go to the big impersonal public university and find out that in high school while you may have been a shark among fish, out in the ocean, you are a shark among sharks. And sometimes you are going to lose. But losing and failing is not the end of anything. Life goes on. You are still a freaking shark. You still can accomplish great things. You just aren’t invincible.

    That said, if you don’t have such a support system, then maybe you should go to a school that will give you that sense. There should also be a time in every person’s life where they are firmly convinced that come what may, someone will be there to support them. If you don’t have a family or group of friends who can be that for you, you need to go out and build that system for yourself. And a really supportive small college can be a place to start.

  47. Really interesting for a UK guy. Back when I went to university in the UK, tuition was “free” (paid by the state), though obviously you had to survive somehow. I stuck with what I wanted to study, medieval and modern history at the University of Birmingham, although did get offered Geography at Cambridge. All UK undergraduate degrees were three years back then. Am I right in thinking that you just apply to a school, then work out what you major in later? Seems a bit backwards. If I had to plunk down $200k I’d have had serious thoughts about not doing it, although times have changed and I suspect you wouldn’t get promoted these days without the magic bit of paper that says B.A.

    I honestly had no idea of the horrifying expense of undergraduate degrees in the US, it’s pretty terrifying. Although I’ve got similar issues myself, as I find myself “stuck” now, as I don’t have an MBA – unfortunately the damn things are now ubiquitous, so to make it through the Human Remains check the box exercise to even make it to interview, I need to have one.

    So I’m stuck with the choice of doing it on line to just check the box, and learn nothing, do a conventional MBA, which I won’t get until I’m 50, and be in a class with an average age of 25, or try an Exec MBA at $49k in tuition fees but with an average student age of 39, which means I’m actually likely to learn something, if not from the course, then at least from the classmates. The last two options are at SDSU as it has a great alumni network, as people don’t leave CA.

  48. My family paid significantly less for me to attend Grinnell College, a highly rated private school with great student/teacher ratios and a high sticker price, than for my sister to attend the University of Michigan with in-state tuition. Grinnell continues to have a need-blind acceptance policy, and then they will go to great lengths to make sure students who are accepted can afford to go there. I had grants, work study, and Stafford loans, on top of a small scholarship I brought with me.

    One thing I don’t see mentioned in your discussion of the topic is specialty. There are schools that are generally top grade, but there are also schools that have specific programs that are particularly stellar. With the money one will be spending on school, it is worth it to spend a little time investigating the faculty and programs that interest you the most. For instance, some schools have really good study abroad programs, which is a good way to get some immersion in a foreign culture even if you’re not ready to commit to four years there. Others excel in teaching journalism, or engineering, etc.

    I went to a liberal arts college hoping to find some direction. I learned a lot, but direction is not something I gained there. Summer internships, work study, and co-op programs, on the other hand, are a terrific way to test out options for what to do when you grow up.

  49. @Cloud: You make another really good argument about picking a certain undergrad over another. If you want to go for additional schooling (PhD, MBA, MD, ect.) there’s another fun fact: grad/med/law schools have weighted rankings to let people into their programs. They know which schools are infamous for grad inflation. Your good GPA will count for less at certain schools. The same is also mildly true for undergrad, but it’s an acknowledged reality for professional degrees.

  50. @ Chris

    All UK undergraduate degrees were three years back then. Am I right in thinking that you just apply to a school, then work out what you major in later? Seems a bit backwards.

    I think it varies by person to person. I knew I wanted to be a physicist since I was eleven years old when my science teacher gave me a book that changed my life, and it was just a matter of working out how I was going to get there. Clearly a lot of American college students matriculate with only a vague or nonexistent notion of what they want to study, let alone make a career of. Some do better from that position than others because some are better at figuring out what they’re good at and what interests them. Those will, from what I can tell, be the ones that are firmly ensconced in a major and not half-assing it by their second year. The rest will generally flounder and might stick it out to the end with an unimpressive GPA on the once quite valid but no longer as compelling theory that a rubber stamp is better than none for employment prospects.

    My personal opinion is that if you have no idea what you want to major in by the end of your first semester, you should seriously consider doing something else for a while and racking up a bit of life experience – but I only say consider because that isn’t best for everyone. That said, I don’t think pressuring students to pick a career path in high school is necessarily a system that would work well in the US, not least because I don’t think our secondary education system does a very good job at preparing them to make that decision.

  51. @Gary re: going abroad.

    The English university system (I can not speak for other countries) is very different to that in the US – students are expected to pick a single subject (or closely related group of subjects) before applying, and to study essentially only that subject for three years. Very different to the “liberal arts” degree common in the US. And of course there’s the difficulty of living in a very different culture, thousands of miles from home.

    I studied at Cambridge – which is the best university in the whole world, obviously :-p Reputation wise it’s clearly on a par with places like Harvard and Yale; and of course it is similarly hard to get into, and also similarly priced.

  52. I agree with you completely John. My daughter just finished hearing from schools and is making her decision. Will it be Northwestern, at $63K all in with no aid offered, or Denison, at $58K with $20K in merit scholarships or Illinois at $28K in state? It’s the networking opportunities at the top 25 school, and the fact that we live in Chicago, that has us even considering paying the cost of NU.

  53. A couple notes from a college counselor’s kid and an ex-Ivy-Leaguer:

    1) Your major, and knowing what you want, makes a difference. I was an English major: I suspect that I could have done that anywhere and had a decent experience. I also knew I was an English major, had taken enough science and math courses in high school to know I didn’t want to waste any part of my four years dicking around with those, and thus picked a school with no core requirements, which was awesome. Someone less certain might want a school with the Obligatory Freshman Math Class, or whatever.

    2) Check out the extracurriculars. I chose Brown in small part because it was a good school and blah blah blah, in large part because it had an active Fantasy Gaming Society with an updated webpage where everything was spelled right. (And also because there was a place five blocks away that sold crepes with Nutella, back when those places were less common.) I’ve really never regretted it: I don’t know that much from my actual classes has made a difference in my life today*, but meeting attractive, socially ept people who share my interests, many of whom are still my friends today? Hell yes, I’m willing to pay $100 a month forever for that.

    3) Seconding the sentiment that college is about getting away from your parents and getting to know people. It’s learning to live on your own with some safety net; it’s also learning to live with, or at least around, other human beings, many of whom you will want to kill on a regular basis. Having a diverse population is good, but really, so is just the experience of not being called for dinner, setting your own bedtime, hiking to the infirmary when you feel sick, not having anyone remind you about homework, etc etc.

    *With the exception of the classes on magic in history, actually. I also had a couple of very cool English classes, and enjoyed Moons for Goons (extraterrestrial geology.) But, and I speak as someone who now makes some money off of writing: the only thing I got out of the Creative Writing program were a number of explicit and detailed fantasies about my freshman year TA.

  54. I would add one thing to your decision process.


    If someone is planning on staying in the same geographic area after graduation, attending a state university with a reputation (for Athena, Ohio State, for me it was the University of Florida) can help open a lot of LOCAL doors post graduation. I have had doors open because I was a Gator, and have given the edge to hiring Gators just because of the pride I feel in my university and because I know first hand that I got a good education there, so I would expect the same out of them.

    That wasn’t only from graduates, but fans of the school who never went also reacted more favorably towards me as a Gator. That’s part of what we call “The Gator Nation”.

    So there’s that too.

  55. I’m glad that Wendy Z mentioned Northwestern. My mother got her degree in English Literature, minor in Journalism from Northwestern, Magna Cume Laude. She set out for New York City to be in book editing. In all but the final interview, before she could get her diploma from her purse, the man would say: “So, girl, how fast can you type.”
    We’ve come a long way since the 1940s…
    She did become a book editor, and married my father, also a book editor. All of which made it inevitable that bookish me would be making this comment…

  56. As a professional student (BS from Oklahoma University, MS from Oklahoma University, PhD from Northwestern, MBA from University of New Orleans), I’d say that the main purpose of the first degree is to help you get that first job; once you are in the door, it is your abilities and “soft skills” (which includes that networking which our host mentioned) that turn you from the mail clerk into the CEO.

    However, the purpose of the other degrees is very different. The MS is about turning you into a professional whatever; it teaches you the ethos of the field (at least as it is practiced at your university) and the basics of how whatever is done. And the PhD is about turning you from a competent doer of work to a competent creator of ideas; your focus shifts from your career to your field as a whole (at least in theory). And, based on what I learned in the MBA, its purpose is to teach you how to weasel effectively.

    As a result, where you go matters only a little for the BS, at least in the STEM fields. What matters more is what you take away from it: did you learn to think, or just how to answer questions in a way that pleases TAs? The former is a valuable life skill where the latter is only useful in politics.

    But where you go matters exponentially more for the MS and the PhD. Not just because some schools have better reputations in certain fields than others, but because of who you will get to work with in those schools. For the MS, you can work with almost anyone and survive your thesis; all you have to do is demonstrate that you are capable of doing competent work. But surviving the dissertation process is very difficult even when your adviser is a person that you like; it is impossible if the two of you have fundamental differences. I would never have survived my PhD if I hadn’t had the chance to work with the wonderful people that I did.

    One side benefit of being very picky about your MS and PhD programs is that you are also more likely to get funding if you are a good fit than if you are not. With the help of Uncle Sam, I paid my own way through the BS. But about 80% of my MS was covered by scholarships because my adviser and I meshed so well. And all of my PhD was covered, along with a stipend that was generous enough for me to live in Chicago without eating mouse soup every day. So the higher your degree, the more it pays to be picky about where you go.

  57. I think we need to find ways to get the cost of college down. In state tuition is still very expensive for most people. I see alot of people complaining about about the cost of college, but very few people looking at the books to see where all this money is being spent. Your first two years are mainly generic classes and low level classes in your major. How much do you need to spend for that?

    Most of the instructors for these classes do not make much money in spite of the costs you are paying. The tenured professors tend to only teach higher level courses and graduate level courses. The esteemed professors teach 1-2 classes a year and students pay for their salaries so they can do research to increase the universities ranking. How does this really help a student?

    I also think students should be given more information about the true cost of an education, what their payment schedule will look like when they get out on those loans and what their salary prospects are. There parents (who have to co-sign them) need that as well.

    I think we should focus more on low cost junior colleges to lower the cost of the first two years. We need to offer a wider variety of night time AND weekend classes to allow students to work around school. It shouldn’t cost that much to put 25-30 people in a room with a whiteboard (most classes don’t require labs). I have a masters in software engineering. A 10 year old computer is all you really need to do homework assignments for these classes. PC power has out paced what you need to do your homework.

    I also think we need to look at why students are shouldering the cost so professors can do research. OK getting research grants is great for the university, but most students are not hired to be research assistants. It is a small minority who get involved. The more famous professors often teach 1 class a year. It is not the students responsibility to pay for this. If professors want to do research that is good. But they should not be paid more money to teach less. This additional pay just means higher tuition.

    I think we also need to look at the size of the campuses. Yes campuses can be nice and relaxing, but they cost alot of money to maintain them. This also comes out of tuition. Most college students these days are part time. They don’t have the time to take advantage of them anyway. I think state funded colleges should be required to cut back on the size of the campuses to trim the budget in order to lower tuition prices. It isn’t worth it for a kid to come out of school with $50,000 in debt to have nice campuses.

    You absolutely don’t need a big name school for a good education. I have an undergraduate degree with a double major and 2 masters degrees. (not bragging just a point of reference, I don’t find the knowledge all that useful). I got my software engineering masters at George Mason (the school that went to the final 4 about 7-8 years ago). I was talking to undergrads in the computer science program (software engineering is a discipline in computer science). Like most computer science programs, the entry level core consists of 3 classes that you take 1 after another. Computer Science 3 is generally considered to be 40 hours/week of study (just for that class). It is hard to learn how to code. It had a 50% failure rate. So half the kids flunked. The failure rate was so high, if the kids retook the class the first grade was removed from your record.

    Some of you will be horrified by this. The failure rate is high because it is really hard to learn how to do this even if you study 40 hours/week. It really does take this much study to be prepared to go to work when you are done. The school would do them a disservice is they made it easier and then kids got better grades. BTW, when you interview for a programming very few employers care about your grades, they care if you can pass the technical interview. So getting an F and then retaking the class and getting a C, is better for them than if they got an
    A the first time because the class was easier. George Mason is a very affordable college.

    Doesn’t cost alot of money to give a quality education. For the record, I was working full time before I went to grad school. I got an employer to pay for my software engineering masters.


    Here’s what they’re saying in academic circles across the country: California wrecked its public schools decades ago, and now it’s starting in on its colleges.

    That may be an exaggeration, but few would deny that this is a pivotal time for the state’s much-admired public colleges and universities, which have been underfunded for years. In their efforts to expand access without spending more money, education officials and state lawmakers will no doubt offer all sorts of bad proposals for how to do more with less, and those who care about the system will have to be vigilant in protecting it.

    Already, there’s legislation to create a fourth college system — in addition to the community colleges, the California State University and the University of California — with no classes, just tests. This proposal has more potential to harm than to help restore the state’s educational luster….
    {follow hotlink for complete editorial}

  59. Re: Northwestern… if your daughter is considering engineering, it is well worth the cost over UIUC. UIUC chews young women up and spits them, broken, into humanities majors. (At least that’s true for every single woman I know who started UIUC engineering, which is quite a few women.) Northwestern is much more supportive for women in engineering and has a much higher retention rate. It is definitely stingy with financial aid, but NWU engineers can make a lot of money with just a BS.

    For a lot of other majors UIUC would be the way to go. (Their psychology dept, for example, is hard to beat.)

    Which I guess is a fancy way of saying it’s worth looking into potential majors as well when doing the cost-benefit analysis.

  60. Hear Hear. Other than a few details (such as, er, not quite being financially able to pay for the elite instutitions, so instead we’d be looking to help with parent-based loans if that ends up the case) this is pretty much how we’re approaching things. (Really nice public university grad here: Purdue University, which for my profession, software, has a very good reputation/network and hey, it was not expensive, though even the public schools are seeing huge tuition and other fees increasing in the past decade and a half.) Honestly my backup plan is if one of my kids really ends up set on one of the local private schools, like Duke University, is to plan ahead, and get a job there in time to get an employee discount on the tuition. But there are (well, currently, the current crop of GOP government is doing their best to dismantle things) currently a wide range of excellent public institutions across my state, that would be great choices.

  61. I love this discussion. I just put out a quick shout out for the right fit as well. I was the first in my family to attend college and the only help I got from my parents was that it had to be in state and not too much money. I picked a private college and got a lot of aid and scholarships to the point that I only paid about half of the tuition for the two years I was there. However, when I decided on a social work major I had to change schools for the license program. I picked the College of St. Catherines, in St. Paul Minnesota and it was life changing.

    St. Kates is an all female school (except the Mpls campus) and the entire faculty lived to challenge every student to her fullest capacity. There was no sitting back in class, no skating through the tests, and no only showing up for the tests. One of my teachers failed me for Intro to Sociology because I never came to class!!! I mean it was Intro to Sociology…I was getting an A??? I made lifelong friends there as well as learned how to be assertive and demand the best from myself and others. Also, here in MN, there are Katies everywhere! It is an instant bond and it helps immensely with networking.

    Was it worth the money? Definitely not for the social work degree. However, for the growth of me as a person…I would even pay the current tuition rate.

  62. While I agree that you probably would get a good education at any school, I think that what you don’t necessarily get is the group of fellow students, and thus the same environment. I am a fellow Maroon alum, and at the U of C you have not only a large group of very smart people, but you have a large group of very smart, slightly quirky people with a focus on learning and on individual identity.

    That environment was perfect for both myself and my wife, because neither of us were very social people; so being in an environment that was both intellectually stimulating AND socially accepting was pretty important to us. Had I gone to a big state college, I don’t imagine I would have done nearly as well, because finding that group of like-minded people would have been that much harder. (I don’t mean like-minded as in believes the same political stuff or whatnot; I mean believes in learning and intellectual pursuits.) Having philosophical discussions over coffee at the Med or whatnot really was very valuable to our growth, socially as well as intellectually.

    Also, the class size and type at the University of Chicago was very valuable to me, as I learn much better in the discussion group setting than in the lecture setting.

    So as such I think it depends very much on the individual. Some people would benefit greatly from the large state school since it allows a lot of practice with networking with different kinds of people along with lecture classes, or allows them to have a large pool of potential friends; some would benefit from a smaller environment with smaller classes and more discussion-oriented classes.

  63. One way to make college more affordable is for the parent to work at the college. Most colleges are tuition free or offer a deep discount for employees children. Some extend this benefit even if your kid goes to another college.

  64. I went to Ohio University for grad school, and I would strongly recommend to anyone to cross it OFF their list for undergrad. Lots of reasons. One, the quality of education. I don’t know how it is now, 10 years later, but when I was there, OU had lost is accreditation. It wasn’t even an accredited school anymore, which strikes me as a pretty low bar to reach.

    I regularly corrected undergrad papers in what was supposed to be one of the top programs there (the j-school), and I was astonished at how illiterate the undergrads were on the whole. I don’t mean entering freshmen who hadn’t been weeded out; I mean juniors and seniors who’d been at OU for 2-3-nearly-4 years and were on their way to graduating. And when I say “illiterate,” I don’t mean they were inconsistent with subjunctive tense. I mean that more than half of them wrote like poorly-schooled 8 year olds, unable to write a sentence of more than 5 words without spelling errors, grammatical errors, spelling errors, and/or misused vocabulary.

    Another problems there–one which had an very obvious effect on the undergrads–was that Athens (where OU is) is an isolated small town in Appalachia, miles from anything, with NOTHING TO DO. NOTHING. So kids drank. Drinking was THE activity at OU. (And according to friends of mine who’d visited OU 20 years earlier, this wasn’t by any means a new problem there.) Since most OU programs hold very few classes on Fridays, this meant that a large (very large) percentage of the student body was drunk off their heads Thurs night through sometime Sunday, week after week. When I was in the tiny town during that period, I’d literally be stepping over the bodies of young people so drunk they were falling down all over the main street. I soon ceased driving through town Thurs-Sun because there was just too much risk of hitting students lying in the road or stumbling drunkenly in front of my car. After the movie house on Main St closed, the university bought it and kept it open, because going to the one-screen theatre was one of the VERY few things there ever was to do in that town besides drink–so the university didn’t want to see the movie theater fold up.

    My parents came to visit me there once, and my dad asked how I could stand it there–47 bars, one tiny/bad bookstore, and absolutely NOTHING to do. (I could stand it because I was a full-time grad student whose full-ride scholarship required me to maintain a high GPA while I was simultaneously working 15 hours/week for my stipend, working part-time at the local radio station, and writing fiction under contract by night. But at the end of the year, I was certainly more than ready to leave Athens, which was not at ALL the sort of college town (Burlington, VT; Madison, WI; etc.) I had imagined I’d be moving to for the year.)

  65. My experience would back up your main point. At one point when I was looking for a new job a few years after college (in the late 1990s), I sought some advice on fine-tuning my resume. I asked whether I should list my experience or my education first. I was told, “You have an Ivy League degree. If you put that at the top, many potential employers will grant you an interview based solely on that.”

    Of course, it was still up to me to impress potential employers once I got an interview, but I strongly suspect that an Ivy League name helped me get my foot in the door in the first place.

    Later, I went to graduate school at the University of Chicago (hi, there, fellow alum!), so my resume looks even more spiffy now. Just this week, I landed a new job at a company known for attracting really sharp minds, and I’d be very surprised if my schools’ reputations didn’t help convince them that I’m smart enough to work for them.

  66. Having written that, I feel (for whatever reason) that I should add: BY contrast, the level of the students in my graduate program (17 of us) was overall very impressive. Most of my classmates in the grad prog were highly intelligent, ambitious, capable people. I had to work very hard to keep up with them.

    Also worth adding, though, that we were overall disappointed with the program–to such an extent that halfway through the year we requested (and got) a meeting with the Dean to express our disappointment in the program. He was new and listened with serious interest, but it was too late to make improvements for our group. Our complaints and suggestions may (or may) not have had an impact on the quality of the program in subsequent years.

  67. The statement that school reputation and associated networks are important is mostly correct. But it depends on a few details.

    First, is that reputation warranted? There are plenty of schools that have good reputations that do not necessarily translate into getting a good job or being able to get into the masters program you want to.

    Second, does the reputation match what you want to do after school? If the school you go to has the reputation of producing heavy hitters in the business world, that may not help you if you want to work in the non-profit world.

    Third, does the schools network really matter for what you are going to study and do after school? Particularly in the areas of software development and computer science a big name school does not carry as much weight as it did a decade or two ago. The internet and open source projects have made it so that you can easily connect with the movers and shakers, or even become one of them, with your school having nothing to do with it.

    Fourth, there are many niches that most people do not think about when it comes to reputations and networks. So you really need to research and investigate things a lot if you are not going into one of the “mainstream” majors. For example I went to one of the smaller University of Wisconsin schools. Most people thought of it as an easy school where you went when you couldn’t get into Madison. However for some of its programs it was considered by those in the related field to be one of the best schools in the country. So for things like Early Childhood Education, Hotel and Restaurant Management, Vocational Rehabilitation, and a couple of subsets of the applied sciences it was the place to go and people came from all over the world. Plus at the time it was one of only three schools in the US that had a degree in Packing, and every single graduate had multiple job offers before they graduated.

    So you really need to figure out what you want to do and do your research to figure out the best fit and the best return on your investment. If you don’t have a really good idea of what you want to do, don’t waste your time on the expensive schools until you do know.

  68. I’ve had three relatively brief “goes” at post-secondary education myself, none of which resulted in a degree … grew up in New York City in a lower-middle class family, and loved the idea of engineering, so was thrilled to pass the entrance exam for the Cooper Union. At that time (possibly even today) it was probably the only privately-owned tuition-free college in the U.S., under the terms of founder Peter Cooper’s (yes, the inventor) will. And while its Engineering school had nowhere near the rep of its Art & Architecture operation, it was still pretty prestigious to be known as a CU student.

    My two major failings there were both primarily age-related (I’d been skipped two grades in earlier years, so wasn’t even 16 when I graduated high school). I was totally unprepared for the change from disciplined work-study habits to self-discipline, plus I didn’t feel comfortable socially because of the age difference between myself and even my fellow freshmen. I wound up “majoring” in extra-curricular activities like the hiking club and the dramatics club, primarily for the social contacts, and skipped many classes, and one of the dean’s reps recommended I quit and try again in a few years.

    So I found myself out on the street looking for work … totally inexperienced and yet considered “over-qualified” for the kinds of clerical positions that seemed most appropriate.

    Round 2: I wound up in an experimental program set up by the Patent Office in Washington, under which they would send promising h.s. graduates to university part time, paid for under more or less standard work-study conditions, while working as examiners’ aides during the day. At that time patent examiners were required to have either an engineering degree (preferably) or one in law, but generally had no patent experience. The idea behind the program was that by the time we eventually earned our degrees, we’d be well versed in patent procedures, giving the Patent Office the best of both worlds. I eventually quit after about three years because my group manager, who had to approve any courses I took, didn’t believe getting a degree was one of the program’s goals, and insisted I take only courses relevant to the our group’s “jurisdiction” (dispensing devices).

    Round 3: Not degree-related, but still involving study-cum-work … after coming to Canada early in the 70’s, I worked primarily as a billing clerk several places, one of which was for a large Allied Van Lines agent in Toronto. I quickly graduated to long-distance billing, and the new manager suggested I take Allied’s long-distance-tariffs course. The material was a breeze in connection with my actual work, and I got a professional certificate along with an informal comment that I’d gotten one of the highest scores they’d seen in years. Not much use to me now, but I’ve still got the certificate floating around somewhere as a reminded that I DID once succeed in completing formal training.

    And not long afterwards, I went to a small manufacturer as a billing clerk, got promoted to purchasing and bookkeeping, and eventually wound up as their accountant, right up to doing financial statements and assisting with budgeting. The comptroller there was tremendously friendly and helpful, and taught me all kinds of useful tricks for tracking down errors, and rules of thumb as, for example, whether to treat an equipment purchase as straight expense or amortize it.

    He also, in cooperation with my manager, recommended and set up a work-study program for RIAA (industrial accountancy) certification, recognizing that my expertise was geared to the individual company and should be broadened to give me more flexibility if the company ever went under (which it eventually did, shortly after my disability-retirement 20 years later). I enjoyed evening course at George Brown in Toronto, but when the company moved here to Kitchener I found there was no reasonably accessible place to get the classroom training. Tried switching to correspondence, but had to give that up fairly quickly because it just wasn’t the same without the classroom immediacy, plus that’s when my daughter was born and the two just didn’t mix.

    Sorry this has been long and rambling … I’ve been told that to experts, that’s almost a dead-giveaway diagnosis of my right-frontal brain damage, essentially my personal form of dyslexia.

  69. Very interesting comments. This is obviously a topic of great concern. Having gone through this seven years ago with my daughter, I can say that I found very helpful the article by Gregg Easterbrook titled “Who needs Harvard?”. It turns out that research by Krueger and Dale examined what happens to kids talented enough to be accepted to an elite school but choose to go to a public school. The link is here: . To summarize, no difference. Neither the vaunted academics or the touted network had a significant impact on income, one metric of career success. I should mention that another researcher, Hoxby, did find some difference in income for graduates of the most elite colleges, but I find the difference not very compelling.

    My daughter’s close peer group went to Harvard, Northwestern, Princeton, Yale and Georgetown, among others. For the most part, their families absorbed the huge costs. My daughter chose to accept a full scholarship to Indiana University where she was a participant in the honors college. She had zero debt when she graduated, spent a year studying abroad in Spain (let us not even talk about paying Harvard prices to study in Sevilla), and from what I can gather, had just as fulfilling and rich of experience as her friends. She is now in her third year of medical school, also at Indiana University.

    I wish you good fortune with Athena’s decision in the coming years. The most important thing to remember is that there are great opportunities everywhere.

  70. Dan, I have to agree. My own daughter took a ton of grief for opting for our state university and their full tuition scholarship over pricier elite options. In the end, she had more opportunities to do research in her chosen field of study (biomedical sciences), has won numerous research grants and fellowships, and will be starting her Ph.d in the fall at a small, highly competitive program. She was very happy with her undergrad choice, and is looking forward to enjoying her projected six-figure income without giving half of her salary it to a loan company for 30 years after.

    Ultimately, Athena (and every other child) should look at a wide variety of schools, apply where they think the fit is best for them, and then look at what they get for offers. The money can be finagled most of the time. My daughter wasn’t willing to take out 80 thousand in loans, and we couldn’t absorb it. But every family situation is different.

  71. I agree on the need for balance between tuition costs and what you expect to get out of your degree program. A few of my thoughts:
    1. Co-op isn’t for everyone, but it can be very helpful; just make sure that the school you attend gives you a useful degree.
    2. Keep an eye on whether that small private school will be around in 5-10 years. I attended a small engineering college (see #1) that has since more or less evaporated, or at least undergone a big sea change. If the school has vanished, having its name on your degree will carry a lot less weight unless you are applying for a job with a fellow graduate of GMI.
    3. Very few people are so focused that they decide on a major and follow it rigorously throughout their university career. Getting the basics in at a community college may be better (and cheaper) for you than trying to stagger through that 8 a.m. course in basic statistics at a big school, taught by a harried TA and competing for his or her attention with 700+ other students. I had only a slippery grasp of electro-magnetic theory from my engineering school; it took CCC to explain it so that it ‘clicked’. It may also open up alternate ideas about which direction you want to go.

  72. I don’t know if anyone else has stated this (I just finished reading the main post, not any of the comments), but a lot of the time, I’ve found, hiring managers really don’t care where you went to school. They’re mostly interested in the degree you hold and your experience in your field. I’m a mechanical engineer working in the biomedical industry. I have a BS in engineering from a decent school in Tennessee (UT actually, but not the main Knoxville campus), and I never had a problem getting the job I have. I’ve worked my way up from being an intro level engineer to a senior position in about 5.5 years. There are people I work with who have degrees (MS and PhD) from much more prestigious schools and are at the same level I am (granted they may have gotten there quicker, but that’s another story).

    All that to say, there may be some industries/trades/professions that it does matter WHERE you go to school, but I think they may be few and far between. Experience trumps most everything else now-a-days, followed by degree held, then maybe followed by school.

  73. @Dan R

    I think the point of the later research is that the elite name doesn’t matter for upper middle class and upper class kids. It does matter for poor kids (and fortunately poor kids are likely to get full rides if they qualify!)

  74. I just wanted to mention that most large state universities do have programs in place to try to improve student retention and reduce the possibility of a student getting lost and. I attended and now work at Arizona State University (with ~74,000 students this year, I think we’re now the biggest US institution), and I know that super large lecture classes are rare – a student might need to experience one or two of those in their time here, but most of their core classes will be of a reasonable size. Online classes are a different matter, of course.

    Not saying a large institutions is for everyone, but don’t discount us by automatically assuming you’ll get lost in the crowd. :-)

  75. As a counterpoint, sometimes a really prestigious degree can work against you at first. After I graduated with my masters from Oxford before the recession hit, I applied for about 100 jobs and got interviews for four of them. While many companies favor the high-end schools, non-profits are afraid that you’ll abandon their low-paying but idealistic jobs quickly. A good degree will certainly help in the long-run but may not pay off immediately depending on the field.

  76. I’m a professional academic who attended state schools (and a junior college) thru the B.A. and Ph.D. and have since taught at all those type of schools as well as at “elite” small liberal arts colleges. I have to say that Scalzi’s analysis fits my experience as both a student and faculty member very well. The only thing I have to add is that sometimes the incredibly over-priced small private school that is NOT well known (you all know that these schools as well as the Ivy’s etc all price fix their tuitions don’t you? And that the total costs generally increase at several times the rate of inflation….) can pay for itself by having a network and connections that can be very efficient at getting their undergrads into top med and/or law schools or excellent grad schools (especially in the sciences). There’s also quite a good chance that your local community college has smaller classes and more dedicated and experienced faculty than your local 3rd tier “research” university (and at a fraction of the cost).

  77. As far as ‘it depends on your major’ goes, I think it’s a bit of a tall order to expect a seventeen-year-old to know what they want to do with their life.

    Some of them do, and that’s great! But me, I started community college positive that I was going to be a professional costume designer. I transferred to a small private liberal arts school positive that I was going to work in international relations. I got a degree in international conflict resolution.

    Five years later, I’m working as a computer programmer. And not in a ‘ugh this economy’ way; in a ‘computer programming is awesome and why didn’t seventeen-year-old me have the good sense to learn how to do it?’ way.

    At the graduate level, I think it makes perfect sense to pick a school for a particular program/specialty/etc. At the undergraduate level, choosing a school because it’s good for one particular major can leave a student in a tight spot if, like many students, they find that they want to change course. A good undergrad program is one that supports students in finding their strengths and passions, rather than assuming that a decision they made at seventeen will hold when they’re twenty-one, let alone twenty-seven or seventy.

  78. Results were published today on graduation and dropout rates at the high schools at which I taught in Pasadena Unified School District, after my professorships but before I taught high school and middle school at Los Angeles Unified School District. Not everyone who graduate goes to college; I don’t have those figures yet. {Warning: the figures have been cooked in various ways, with which I will not bore you now}

    PUSD Graduation Rates Range from 77.8 to 97.9 Percent
    High school graduation rate in Los Angeles County for the 2011-12 school year was 74.7 %. See how Pasadena Unified high schools fared.
    By City News Service, April 10, 2013

    The high school graduation rate in Los Angeles County for the 2011-12 school year was 74.7 percent, with a dropout rate of 14.9 percent, according to figures released Tuesday by the state Department of Education.

    The graduation rate was up from 73.7 percent from the previous year, while the dropout rate dipped from 16.7 percent, according to the state.

    At John Muir High School, which largely serves Pasadena and Altadena, the graduation rate is 77.9 percent and the dropout rate is 12.2 percent, according to the state Department of Education.

    Pasadena High School has a graduation rate of 92.3 percent and a dropout rate of 5.4 percent.

    Marshall Fundamental had the highest high school graduation rate in the Pasadena Unified School District with 97.9 and a dropout rate of 1.7 percent.

    In contrast, Blair High School had the lowest graduation rate—77.8 percent—and the highest dropout rate—15.9 percent.

    The graduation and dropout rates were for students who entered the ninth grade in 2008-09. Those who didn’t graduate with their class or leave school altogether either remained enrolled, completed special education programs or passed the General Educational Development (GED) test.

    The upticks reflected statewide gains. According to the CDE, 78.5 percent of Californians graduated with their class last year, up 1.4 percent from the previous year. Black and Hispanic students also posted gains of about a couple of percentage points each.

    “There are great things happening in California’s schools every day, and the upward climb of our graduation rate bears that out,” according to Tom Torlakson, the state superintendent of public instruction. “While I am glad to announce that we are moving in the right direction, the fact remains that we must keep moving to ensure that every California student graduates ready to succeed in the world they will find outside our classrooms.”

    The statewide dropout rate declined 1.5 percent to 13.2 percent.

    In the Los Angeles Unified School District — the nation’s second largest, 66.2 percent of students who entered high school in 2008-09 graduated with their class in 2012, up from 64.8 percent the prior year. The dropout rate in LAUSD was 20.3 percent, down from 22.6 percent, according to the state.

    In LAUSD, the graduation rate for white students was 70.7 percent, with a dropout rate of 21.1 percent, according to the CDE statistics. For Hispanics, the rates were 65.5 percent and 20.1 percent; for black students 60.6 percent and 24.7 percent; and for Asians, 85.2 percent and 9 percent.

    In Orange County, the graduation rate was 85.3 percent and the dropout rate was 9.1 percent, compared to last year’s figures of 85.6 percent and 9.5 percent.

    — Jessica Hamlin contributed to this report.

  79. @leeflower: If you think you might be interested in engineering etc. then you’re more likely to get exposure to it if you go to a school that actually has an engineering department (plus many engineering schools make you start as a freshman). I’m all about finding yourself in school, and people do change their minds about majors all the time (my career is something I discovered I liked in college), but if you’re a woman interested in engineering, it’s a good idea to go to a place that has an engineering school that is supportive of women. Otherwise you’re more likely to drop out of engineering entirely or not start at all, and you’ll never know what could have been (or worse, you’ll think it’s a problem with you and not with the school).

  80. Most of the instructors for these classes do not make much money in spite of the costs you are paying. The tenured professors tend to only teach higher level courses and graduate level courses. The esteemed professors teach 1-2 classes a year and students pay for their salaries so they can do research to increase the universities ranking. How does this really help a student?

    Universities are not just about educating students. They are also about developing knowledge in general. So sometimes one side of it gets affected by the other side.

    In addition, the cost of faculty has been dropping substantially over the last thirty years, driven by the adjunctification of higher education. What’s been driving costs upwards have been 1) facilities arms races [better gyms, better stadiums, better residence halls, etc] 2) growth in administration, 3) the horrendous slashing of state funding of their public schools (As someone noted California is destroying its public system, Wisconsin is starting on its as well, and NC and Pennsylvania have cut their support drastically) and 4) financial aid for students.

    It’s not the tenured professor teaching 1-2 courses/year that busts the budgets, it’s the non-academic stuff.

  81. I think you’re completely right to ask “What’s the added value” about these things – and public institutions are often better than pricier private places. However, if you really do find “the perfect fit,” don’t knock it. I found the perfect fit at Cornell and it was literally life-changing: I made some of the best friends I’ve ever had, was inspired to choose my current (very rewarding) career path, learned how to interact socially, and basically went from a high school larva to a (I hope!) human being. Some of those things I’m certain wouldn’t have happened at a school that wasn’t as good a fit.

    (And it’s very personal, too – I’m not trying to plug Cornell here. Everyone fits with different schools.)

  82. The thing that made up my mind about universities was that I graduated high school early (age 17 and 3 months) and was not quite ready to pack up and move across the country. (Perhaps if I had gotten into a school in the city my grandparents lived in…) So I went to Local State University, and did pretty well for myself (I’m now in grad school at an Ivy League and should get my PhD this year). Having my support network stay local helped me make the transition. OTOH, I know students that, at 18, were fine with leaving home.

    It helped a lot that my dad was also a professor in a field close to my major, so he could advise me on general ‘things we tell undergrads’ and even got me a tour of the department and some meetings with professors so I could decide if I’d feel happy there. Also, I didn’t think my dad was the type to notice non-academic factors (being kind of the stereotype of a Straight White Male Supportive-yet-Clueless Scientist), but he warned me off at least one school because he’d heard things from female colleagues that made him worried.

    (I didn’t realize what a difference things like visits made until I went to grad school. In the sciences, they will actually pay to fly out all the prospective grad students they admit and show them around. Otherwise, I don’t know how I would have chosen: the visits gave me a lot of useful information.)

    The university was also well-funded enough that in-state high schoolers who did well (something like ‘top 5% in their class’*) were given full tuition scholarships in an effort to keep them from leaving the state for school, under the belief that they would never come back if they left. Which was nice for me (since I qualified) and nice for my sister (she could use my parents’ free employee credits without having to share). I don’t know if the state still does things like that, since that was back in 2001.

    * There might have been a testing requirement, since it is a largely rural state, and there were high schools where this meant ‘the top one or two seniors’, but I went to a large high school.

  83. The take on university education, workloads, and economics from “Guess,” ‘way upthread, deserves a response in addition to @David’s list of cost-drivers:

    Even as I write this, my wife (Ph.D., Shakespeare scholar, SFWA member, 40+ years of teaching experience) is teaching a freshman English course of, I think 25 students. (It’s in the honors program, but hereabouts that just means the level of resistance-to-learning is lower.) She does not get any time off for research, teaches a full schedule of undergrad courses every term, along with very occasional grad courses. This is not an unusual situation for those who teach at mid-level state schools. Pay and benefits are decent, but the workload is non-trivial, especially if you take seriously the job of teaching writing. And the workload is heavier and the pay lower at two-year schools.

    Those “first two years [of] mainly generic classes and low level classes in your major” that Guess mentions are not to be undervalued or short-changed–though they often are. The courses now rather dismissively labelled “general ed” were, in my long-ago Jesuit-college days, the foundations for what came after, the core of my education, which got as far as the Ph.D. I still use much of what I learned in my undergrad philosophy (and even theology) courses–which were taught by regular faculty. (No such thing as a TA or even an adjunct there and then.) I even got a dose of pretty sophisticated math theory, along with an economics course (taught by a Kennedy-administration economic advisor) that I’m still digesting. Shortchanging core-curriculum courses is like building a tower on sand. And there is no cheap way to deliver real education, as distinct from simply collecting dollars in exchange for credit-hours which can eventually be turned in for a nice certificate of persistence.

  84. I’m a semi-recent graduate of a small, liberal arts public school. Yes they do exist. I ended up choosing it over an Ivy League school because of my educational needs- I wanted to do research and go to graduate school. At the Ivy, which has an excellent undergraduate major in my field, I would be competing with thousands of other students to help out a graduate student or post-doc in a lab. At my undergrad, my major graduated 80 students my year, and I joined a lab my freshman year that I stayed in for the rest of my time there. I pursued my own project, defended and honors thesis and got accepted to a top 5 graduate program. Plus, it was more affordable (which was helped by a merit scholarship), I was in an honors program that paid for me to travel abroad to do research in a field unrelated to my major, and I got to have the full liberal arts experience, which I adored.

    I imagine my experience is more similar to someone who went to a small private school than a large public school (my graduate program is at a large public school and I would have HATED being an undergrad here). So, if the program is right and the networks are right, I would think that it would be worth the cost.

  85. This is such a weird discussion for me. I am in my final year of university in Ontario, Canada, and we have very few private universities. All of the public schools have very similar tuition, at least for a standard BA, and it’s right now between $600-$700 per class and you take 10 classes per year (or 5 “full year” classes that cost $1200-1400, or some combination of the two). Add in extra fees and textbooks and you’re likely still under $10,000. This doesn’t include any living expenses however, and here, it is highly unlikely to continue to live in residence past your first year, which seems more common in the States. One of my friends went to a private Christian university and while her tuition is more than double my own it is about $15,000 per year. I took five years to finish my degree and yet paid less in tuition than people pay for one year at some American schools, it astonishes me. And reminds me how lucky I am.

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