April 14, 2009

Expensive waste

When it comes down to it, elite private colleges aren’t worth the tuition dollars

When most people say that private colleges are too expensive, they’re making a claim that’s distinctly personal; they don’t have enough money to comfortably afford the sticker price. I’d like to make a different claim. In my opinion, the price of attending the vast majority of private colleges is actually overvalued—provided you are receiving little financial aid, your money would be better spent elsewhere.

What a claim! After all, students are viciously competing for the chance to pay $200,000 to spend four years out of the job market (and off payrolls), so how could it be possible that college is overpriced? In fact, it’s ostensibly underpriced; demand is so high that most colleges could significantly increase their prices and still fill the limited available seats. True enough. But when you’re dealing with investments whose returns are hard to predict, prices do not convey information so much about value but about demand, and there is often a difference. (Many economists equate market price with value. I think this argument is tenable only when you’re discussing goods as currency; a tulip bulb valued at $3,000 is almost completely useless except as money, while $3,000 worth of gold has a tremendous number of uses. On our planet, value is intrinsic. Why else is there a gold standard but not a tulip standard?) Housing prices skyrocketed in 2005, not because of an increase in the usefulness of a home—it was because of an increase in demand for homes, fueled by speculation and an awful lot of severely misplaced moral fervor about home ownership.

The question remains whether $200,000 is an appropriate sum to spend on education. Given this rather extraordinary amount of money, the burden of proof should not be on you, the student, but on the elite colleges of the country. In a famous 1999 study, economists Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger found that students who had been admitted to more selective schools earned no more than students who had applied to the same schools and had been rejected. So if we can safely eliminate earnings as part of the returns to an elite school, what else is there? There’s prestige, but many suggest (correctly, I think) that its returns are diminishing; if you’re smart and dedicated enough, you’ll rapidly distinguish yourself after college.

How much you learn is really what separates the wheat from the chaff among colleges. Indeed, many elite private schools, the U of C among them, score “A+” in the student-written university guidebook College Prowler’s “Academics” category. But quite a few “unknown” private and public schools are in the A range as well. I am not sure whether that modest educational advantage provides you with more opportunities than an academically strong, large state school would, especially since in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. The very smart can be very greedy (educationally!) at such universities.

Some say that maybe places like the University of Chicago are essential to the functioning of a true democracy. I am extremely suspicious of such proclamations for several reasons. Their proponents are almost uniformly career academics, and if we did not subscribe to their ideas, they would not have jobs. Yet it’s not so much a money-making conspiracy as it is insurmountable cognitive dissonance—you cannot teach something as useless as Latin (let’s be honest here) without believing that you are upholding the righteous, classical mission of our forefathers. And this brings me to an even bigger problem with the idea, and that is that it has never been particularly old or widespread; higher education as we know it was nonexistent for the vast majority of people throughout history. Nor is the creation of classicism without precedent. Go way back to the Middle Ages; what was being studied in European universities? They must surely have been reading Plato and Homer, given the “centrality of these works to the human experience” (or something along those lines, depending on which professor you’re talking with). In fact, the “classicization” of these works began only in the Renaissance, when ancient Greek was essentially rediscovered by the rebellious proponents of humanism.

The vast majority of humans throughout history have only had vocational education at best. To suggest that democracy depends on the sliver of the population that reads Aristotle is really pushing it, and it is disgustingly elitist to suggest that the only way one can truly acquire a soul is by giving $200,000 to a very selective, private university. So don’t let the pious ramblings of misguided idealists make you do the wrong thing. Coming here is one thing, but attending any private school not in the top 10 or 20 on U.S. News and World is an unconscionable waste of money. You are not getting the (mostly useless) prestige or the (somewhat and in-certain-majors-only) better education, and you should instead be attending a public school studying something useful or at least interesting.

Arieh Smith is a first-year in the College.