Why are you bankrupting yourself for college?

What do universities want? The same as what everybody else wants, really. Power. Fame. Money. Well, the money’s actually a means to the first two, because you obviously don’t become powerful and famous (sorry, “prestigious”) without money.

How do universities rise up? They hire and sponsor press-worthy research and researchers, and save up money to build shiny new buildings every so often. That takes a lot of cash, so they have to keep the dough rolling in.

Universities generally rely on four or five sources of funding:

  • endowment investments—if the stock market and economy do poorly, this drops
  • public funding—this is subject to politics (haha, we’re screwed) and the state budget, and applies to public universities
  • private giving—students are paid to call alumni and beg for money. In a bad year, this could drop as well.
  • research grants—research funding is hugely taxpayer sponsored, but private corporations also invest in university research.
  • tuition—sorry undergrads

Guess which one of those the school has the most control over?
So schools crank up tuition to make up for shortages in their other income sources.

Public schools can’t always extort their in-state students (University of California aside) so they’ve looked overseas. There are plenty of wealthy families in China, Korea, India, and elsewhere that don’t mind paying some cash for their kid to get an American diploma. Besides, the schools in their native country are often awful or hard to get into. Have you been seeing a lot more international students around campus?

“But wait,” you say, “I learned in econ that the free market keeps prices under control!”

Haha, except the undergrad diploma market is so ****ed up that it’s not much of a free market anymore. With every employer expecting a 4-year college degree and the college-education Kool-aid we’ve all drunk, universities have realized that they can just keep raising prices. Parents don’t want to tell their only-average kids that they can’t go to NYU because it’s very (very) expensive, even though they were ecstatic about getting in. Kids don’t have a clue about money anyways (nor about college, for that matter). And the best part is, the government has made sure you can borrow as much money as you need to attend. It’s almost as if the banks make more money if you take out more loans.

It’s criminal. The supply of Cool Universities is constrained and demand for Cool Universities is higher than ever, while the money issue is “solved” by student loans. “Johnny is going to Cool University“, the parent says before Johnny will be forever haunted by debt collectors about a debt he didn’t understand when he signed up and that he can’t pay back because his Literature and French double-major isn’t helping him a whole lot in the job hunt. The only other ways out of student debt are death and debilitating injury. (Actually, marrying rich doesn’t sound like a bad idea either.)

And let’s get that bullshit that expensive schools feed you out of the way.

When you took a tour of Cool University, what did they show you? Student traditions, the interesting architecture of the new CyberBioTech School, and the fancy new computer labs/lounges/beanbag chairs… why were we going to college again?

Oh, right. You’re going for the world-class faculty and education. Let me tell you something. Schools like to keep around celebrity professors for that “fame” thing we discussed earlier. Half of those Nobel laureates probably have already retired after a long career of teaching undergrads. Oh wait, I mixed up the Nobel Prize with the Not-A-Prize for teaching excellence. The Nobel Prize is for research, and at any school that has “research” somewhere on its Wikipedia page, research is the main priority. Or rather, it’s a means to fame, like when your Facebook friends all reshare some HuffPo blarticle about the new Nano AI Laser Quadcopter Cancer Cure from the research labs of Cool University.

So you’ll probably never have a class with that Nobel laureate. They’ll probably never even acknowledge your existence, much less discuss the effects of colonialism in Africa with you. And even if you do get a class with Professor Cool, you’ll probably find out that fame is not at all correlated with the ability to teach. Prof Cool has grad students to manage and grants to write, and that doesn’t leave a lot of time for preparing lesson plans or practicing public speaking for the N classes he or she is teaching that semester (N ≤ 1). Just let the grad student teach, nevermind the poor English.

Is there a difference between the rigor and depth of curricula between different schools? Absolutely. Is one school’s EE program $200,000 better or even $70,000 better than another’s? That’s much harder to decide. (Oooh, I know! Do both programs and let us know!) But if you were worried about finding a job with an Uncool degree, consider the idea that what you do outside of the classroom matters a lot more than what you do inside the classroom. Ironic, isn’t it, that the greatest parts of college usually aren’t the classes you take.

Lead a philanthropic organization! Do research! Start a company!

Wait a sec, aren’t the people who did those things in high school the ones that got into Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and MIT? Could ambition and motivation be the actual keys to success? Could it be that the admissions officers were only looking for duckies who were already going to be successful? Could colleges rank highly simply because top students go there because the college ranks highly? Could I get a Conspiracy Keanu up in here?

College is 70% what you put into it, and I’m not talking about money. A big school, no matter where it is, will have more than enough to keep you entertained for four years, after which, you’ll be sick of your school anyways and will want to get a job or go to grad school somewhere else.

Some people have colored this as a public/private issue, but it’s really about making sane decisions with your money. Public schools usually are cheaper, but if you get a good deal to Harvard/Yale/Princeton/Stanford, then why not? Ultimately, it’s your desires and your finances, but the idea that high schoolers with barely a clue about the real world or even about college are making a hundred-thousand dollar decision is frightening.

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