Tuition and College Quality

For better or worse Americans associate high quality with high price. It’s true for colleges and universities. The higher the tuition the higher the implied quality. The fact is that most students do not pay the list tuition and there are many high quality schools with reasonable tuition.

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The Rest of the Story

It is a popular press story line to question the value of a college degree. On Thursday, November 20, 2014, CNN aired a two-hour special titled, “Ivory Tower: Is College Worth the Cost?”

Stories like this one are often mixed in with the scare stories about individuals with large student debt who ended up tending bar or driving a taxi after graduation. From a story in The New Republic,Why the Media is Always Wrong about the Value of a College Degree”  by Kevin Carey, however:

  • Sally Cameron studied French and Arabic at a tony liberal arts college and knew that graduate school (Yale) would help her career chances. But when she hit the job market, her Ivy League management degree didn’t seem to matter. She paid the rent by tending bar and filled her time with volunteer work. Today, Sally Cameron is a senior manager at an international development consulting company. Her recent work includes building railroads in cyclone-devastated Madagascar.
  • In 1982, the Washington Post wrote about Mel Rodenstein, a Peace Corps alum with a master’s degree in international affairs who was slaving away in a “mindless” file clerk job, forced to cut coupons and subsist on rice and beans. By 2010, he was a senior research project supervisor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Health.
  • In 1993, a Washington Post article titled, “Grads Without Jobs” described two young women graduating from good state universities who planned to spend a year wandering North America in a station wagon because “there are no good jobs anyway.” In 2014, one of them lives in Silver Spring, Maryland, and runs her own HR consulting firm. The other got a PhD and works 20 feet away form Kevin Carey (author of the New Republic article) in a Washington, DC think tank.

When it comes to whether a college degree is “worth it,” you need to have the rest of the story.

Career and Graduation – Less About the College You Pick

College, major – major – major, degree, job. This is the usual sequence college graduates have taken to get an education. It’s backwards. Here’s why.Buzz TodayTHE PAYOEF TO ATTENDING A MORE SELECTIVE COLLEGE: Students who attended more selective colleges do not earn more than other students who were accepted and rejected by comparable schools but attended less selective colleges. College Selectivity and Degree Completion. We find that selectivity does not have an independent effect on graduation. We also find no evidence that students not attending highly selective colleges suffer reduced chances of graduation, all else being equal.

The Buzz Today research shows that the selectivity of the college does little to assure higher graduation rate or higher salary. This may seem counter intuitive.

Harvard University has a graduation rate of 97% while some other universities have graduation rates in the single digits.   So, you might be saying: “how can you tell me that the university I (or my kids) attend does not impact the chances of graduation?”

What the research in Buzz Today shows is that it is not the university that impacts graduation and salary. It is the person. It is you.

This is important to know because many (especially parents) who bet the future on getting into the most selective university possible. The false assumption is that attendance at a highly selective university increases the likelihood of graduation and high income. Not true. It’s not the college. It’s you.

What this means for you as a student or, a parent of a student is what is important. Two priorities follow from this information. The first is to stop obsessing over the admissions decision. If you don’t get into the college of your first choice it does not mean that your chances of graduation are reduced or you are destined to a low income existence. Go to a selective school if you desire but do not make it the key to your future. You define the key to your future, not the college you attend.

The second implication of this is to allow yourself to consider the cost of your education as a valid thing to consider. Generally highly selective universities have higher cost. As a result, some get trapped into high student debt based on the belief that graduation and future income depended on going to a highly selective college.

It is OK to consider going to a lower cost, less selective college as a career path choice. Making a college choice based on lower tuition cost does not condemn you to a lower chance of graduation and a lower salary.

The most important decisions you need to make about your education are about you. They are not so much about the university you select. My book Your Future is Calling can help you with decisions about “who you are” and career choices that match you. Use it.