Education Week

October 6-10, 2014 . . . only on NRO

A College Plan for the People


After reading thousands of words of insightful commentary about the ideological and academic decline of American college education, its bloated, bubble-like economics, and the corresponding crushing debt burden, what’s a parent to do? How can a kid decide?

Do you go to college? If so, where? How do you choose from the competing, extraordinarily expensive options?

What follows is a college plan for people who can’t pay for college out of petty cash, who can’t painlessly attend a $50,000-per-year niche private school featuring, say, the top lesbian anarchist scholars in the Northeast. In other words, this is a college plan (forgive me for borrowing #Occupy language on NRO) for the 99 percent.

Step 1: Decide if college is right for you. A college degree isn’t necessary for financial success. Of course one can point to tech superstars like Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs (Time has a nice roundup of top ten college dropouts), but those individuals are outliers. Better examples might include your local carpenters, plumbers, and other skilled workers — or perhaps a veteran noncommissioned officer. Our economy is full of hard workers who do well without that English or marketing degree.

Step 2: Understand that college is generally about credentialing, not prestige. The economic purpose of a college education is relatively simple: It grants you access to jobs that are closed off to those without a degree. Increasingly, that includes jobs that don’t actually require college-level skills, but because a degree requirement is one of the few lawful ways to screen out the vast majority of unsuitable applicants, degree requirements flourish.

Step 3: Don’t overpay for a credential. There are only two circumstances where you should be willing to go into debt for an undergraduate education — to attend one of the vanishingly small number (fewer than ten) of “shock and awe” schools that grant a substantial and measurable advantage beyond the degree itself, or to obtain an education (like a quality theological education) that truly can’t be obtained at a less expensive school.

That’s it. No other exceptions. Dad, Granddad, and Great-Grandma went to Expensive Private University? Well, some traditions must come to an end. You just got admitted to the eighth-ranked “liberal-arts program amongst small colleges in the Southeast?” Please. No one cares.

Don’t be swayed by the marketing brochures, the bucolic campuses, and the gushing praise from slightly buzzed students. For the vast majority of private schools, ask yourself if spending $200,000 to go to Disneyland is worth the money — because that’s what they offer: academic Disneyland, with no lasting benefits greater than those offered by your typical state-supported school.

Step 4: Do as well as you can in the college you can afford. When it comes to undergraduate education, how well you do matters more than where you do it (the dynamic flips a bit in graduate school; more on that later). And, to be very clear, it’s not hard to do well. Your classmates will be busy in college — busy sleeping and partying, that is. If you dial back on the booze and buckle down just a tiny bit on the books, then you will stand out.

And standing out matters. That’s how you get the good recommendations. That’s a key way to make connections. That’s how you get the second looks from graduate-school admissions committees. When I was on the admissions committee of an Ivy League law school (Cornell), we cared much more about how well applicants did than where they obtained their degrees. We turned down quite a few prestige-private-school undergrads in favor of outstanding public-school students. GPA and test scores mattered much, much more than the name on the diploma.

Step 5: Save your money and prestige focus for graduate school. If you go to graduate school, the identity of your college gets irrelevant fast. Who has more job options: The person who went to the University of Illinois for college and Harvard for law school, or the person who went to Harvard for undergrad and the University of Illinois for law school?

When I was a hiring partner at a big law firm, we cared not one bit about a student’s undergraduate education — except, perhaps, as a conversation starter (that’s an expensive icebreaker!). We looked instead at law school, then law-school performance, with a sliding scale based on the quality of the law school. We might interview the top third of the graduating class of a top school while interviewing only the top two or three from a second-tier school. Sounds unfair, but that’s how life works when hiring professional-school graduates.

There, prestige matters as much as standing out.

Of course, for conservatives there are many side benefits to adhering to this plan. If just a few more families shift their kids out of extravagantly expensive, marginally prestigious private schools, there will be real downward pressure on tuition, frivolous expenditures and disciplines will fall by the wayside, and we’ll have some actual academic reform without having to fight fractious ideological battles.

In other words, the market can work — if only we behave rationally. And college debt is almost never rational.

— David French is a lawyer, writer, and veteran of the Iraq War.


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