Students & Parents | Costs

9 Reasons I Don’t Care Where My Kids Go To College

FORBES   |  September 29, 2014 by Emma Johnson

I wrote last week about the issue of parents prioritizing college savings over that for their own retirements – an problem exacerbated among professional single parents like myself, as 47 percent of single moms surveyed prioritize college savings over retirement, compared to just 26 percent of other modern families who say the same.

It’s hard to fault parents for getting into a tizzy over college decisions. In the decade between the 2000-2001 and 2010-2011 academic years, the average cost of colleges overall rose 70 percent to $18,497, according to the Institute for College Access & Success. Consider the jaw-dropping $61,000-per-year price tag at Sarah Lawrence, or even $23,000 for in-state students at University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, my alma mater. To pay for these crazy fees, 7 out of 10 students in the class of 2012 graduated with student loans. On average, students left school with an average loan of $29,400 — a sum increasingly hard for students to manage, as the rate of delinquencies nearly doubling to 11.5 percent over the past decade, according to the Fed.

Those kinds of very real financial pressures face parents of college-bound students every time we scan the media — as do headlines screaming about unemployment rates for young adults and the high and steady rate of millennials who just will not move out of their childhood bedrooms. The logical response is to save up for college and put the screws to our kids to increase the likelihood they get accepted into top schools. The assumption is that better the school, the better the chance of professional success and financial earnings, and the greater the ROI on the high cost of the very best schools. 

But that assumption is wrong (I’ll get to that in a moment), and the entire academic paradigm in this country has been turned on its head. As I struggle through 1st grade daily homework with my daughter, and the social pressure to engage my preschool-aged son in a half-dozen extracurricular activities, I am committing to long-view. And that view is neutral on where my kids go to college. In fact, since I foresee a limited college savings fund, I will encourage my kids to seek out state, two-year or technical schools, depending on their interests and aptitude. I am also open to the idea that they forego college all together, instead invest those funds in starting a business or real estate.

Here’s why:

Brand of school does not determine professional success. While there is clear statistical evidence that a college degree has a significant impact on earning potential compared with attending college without graduating — or only graduating from high school — the prestige of the university is irrelevant in this regard.

One noted study published in 2002 by Alan Krueger, a Princeton professor who went on to be chief economist for the Treasury, found that by the time they reached their 30s, top-performing high-school students who were admitted to both Ivy League and middle-ranking states schools (like Penn vs. Penn State) earned about the same salaries, regardless of which school they attended. In other words, it is more important whether you go to college, opposed to where you go to college.

It makes zero sense to wrack up student debt in a perilous economy. Pretty sure the days of steady employment and smooth economy are over. More debt does not tamper that uncertainty.

The overall value of a college degree is diminishing. In 2013, 260,000 young adults with bachelors degrees held minimum-wage jobs– twice the number as 2005, according to Labor Department stats Further, 37% of recent grads held jobs that don’t require advanced education — like bartending, working for the post office and retail gigs. Throwing more money at this equation does not fix it.

The quality of top-ranked schools plummet while costs soar. In January the American Council of Trustees and Alumni released its report on 29 top liberal arts schools. Overall the verdict is that these name-brand institutions are guilty of grade inflation, flimsy educational standards and wayward spending — especially on administrative and building costs that grow faster than funds spent on teaching. Between the 2007 and 2012 school years, these institutions’ sticker prices rose by 6 percent to 17 percent, while many school presidents earn at least $400,000, and on average and administration expenditures exceeded one-third the amount spent on instruction.

No one is learning anything in college anyway. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, published by the University of Chicago Press, reported that 36 percent of college students did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning during their college careers. It’s no wonder — the National Survey of Student Engagement found that 47 percent of college seniors study 15 hours or less per week. I’m not surprised. My main memories from college are $5 happy hour pitchers of Miller Lite at a scuzzy but awesome pub called Murphy’s, my giant crush on the campus concert promoter and vaguely learning about fair reporting in an investigative journalism class.

It’s even worse at top schools. Now just imagine if I had spent my college years getting drunk and chasing stoned hotties at an even more expensive school. This would have been an even bigger waste of money. In the ACTA survey of  those 29 top-ranked liberal arts colleges (where on average an education comes with a quarter-million-dollar price tag), just two require graduates take an economics course, three require a U.S. history course and only five insist students take literature courses. The survey report goes into detail that these core classes have been replaced with those with titles like “Food in the Middle East: History, Culture and Identity,” and “Mad Men and Mad Women: An examination of masculinity and femininity in mid-20th century America.” Sounds fascinating — but at what cost?

Focus on college admissions makes your kid and family crazy. I live and raise my kids in New York City — the blazing hot bed of academic pressure on children of all ages. Even in my scrappy Queens neighborhood I know many families who pay $200 per hour and more to tutor their 4-year-old children for the public school’s gifted program, challenge the preschool to offer Mandarin over French and invest in music summer camps that are as expensive as a semester at one of the colleges I am bashing in this essay — all in an effort to give their kids a leg-up in the college admissions more than a decade away. As kids grow up this early pressure progresses to a slurry of extracurricular activities, tutoring and fierce classroom competition. All of which is really stressful for the kids and families alike.

Columbia psychologist Suniya S. Luthar Ph.D. has been studying rich, college-bound suburban kids for more than two decades. In an article published in Psychology Today, entitled “The Problem With Rich Kids,”  Luthar reports that these teens with parents who earn at least $150,000 per year suffer disproportionately high rates of hard drug abuse, depression, anxiety and anti-social behavior like theft. By many measurements, these rich kids fare far worse than their poor inner-city counterparts. Luthar writes:

Across geographical areas and public and private schools, upper-middle-class youngsters show alarmingly high rates of serious disturbance …The evidence all points to one cause underlying the different disturbances documented: pressure for high-octane achievement. The children of affluent parents expect to excel at school and in multiple extracurriculars and also in their social lives. 

By consciously stepping off the Ivy-league road now, I save my kids and myself lots of anguish.

Technology is changing the economy – and an academic education is increasingly irrelevant. We love to hold as heroes college-drop-outs-come-billionaires Mark Zuckerbergs, Michael Dells, Steve Jobs and Bill Gateses of the world. And while these tech and business geniuses are anomalies, it is true our increasingly service-based economy has outgrown the traditional academic model and flattened the world. While parents brainstorm to land their over-educated millennials out of their childhood bedrooms and into adulthood, a recent Harvard report predicts that a third of the 47 million new jobs expected to be created in the U.S. by 2018 will only require an associate’s degree or certificate. This is hardly surprising considering the high number of degreed bartenders and baristas in our midst.

Elite networking is available to everyone. People argue that elite educations are valuable for their networking opportunities. No argument. But you know what else is valuable? LinkedIn, professional organizations, conferences, Burning Man, Teach America, the international backpacking circuit and strategically chosen happy hours — all of which is accessible to most everyone. Again, technology along with the breakdown of old-fashioned social structures has flattened the world. Smart, creative and driven people want to meet each other, regardless of where they were accepted to college at age 17. Personally I have gotten more client leads from my kids’ bus stop and Twitter than my college alumni association.


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