Wednesday, August 20, 2008


An Open Letter to Money Magazine

Dear Editors of Money,

This one has been making the rounds on campus.

The September issue of Money magazine features an article by Penelope Wang entitled “Is College Still Worth the Price?” (I haven't been able to find it online.) It features the obligatory references to Vassar, climbing walls, arms races, the Chivas Regal effect, and superstar professors. It's intended to motivate parents to subject the pricey colleges and universities to cost-benefit analyses, and it could easily have been written ten years ago. But it also contains a memorable howler:

“The outlet for students who can't play this game has always been public colleges, which 80% of undergraduates attend.” (p. 90)

The outlet, which 80 percent of undergraduates attend.


I know that Money magazine assumes a certain class background among its readers. I know that among certain strata, 'college' is synonymous with 'exclusive' and 'private.' And I know that higher ed isn't really your specialty. But this is really a bit much.

By any reasonable definition, 80 percent is not the outlet, or the exception, or the afterthought. It's the majority. It's the norm. For that matter, almost half of the undergraduates in America attend community colleges, which merit no mention – not one – in the entire piece. Compare the complete silence on community colleges to this sentence from page 89: “But they're spending even more on building Hogwarts-style dorms with mahogany casement windows of leaded glass (Princeton's newest $136 million student residence); installing 35-foot climbing walls and hot tubs big enough for 15 people (Boston University); providing multiple eateries with varied cuisines and massive fitness centers (too many schools to name).” Tell you what – find me one community college in America with mahogany casement windows of leaded glass, and we'll talk.

Among public four-year and community colleges, the lead is likelier to be found in the interior paint of the 1960's brutalist concrete squares showing the fruit of decades of deferred maintenance. I've been on plenty of community colleges campuses over the last several years, and have yet to see a hot tub. The 'varied cuisines' part I'll concede, I suppose, if you count Taco Bell and Pizza Hut.

I'd just roll my eyes at the article and be done with it, if I weren't convinced that it feeds an incredibly destructive attitude among powerful people.

It took me a few re-reads to figure out how the intended reader was intended to respond. Are elite colleges acting irrationally? No, because the market seems to bear the cost just fine, judging by the Chivas Regal effect. Should Congress crack down on wasteful public colleges? No, they barely merit mention, though you do manage to quote a few prominent Republicans taking potshots at an undifferentiated Higher Ed. Are tenured liberals living high on the hog, thumbing their vegan-fed noses at their ignorant but well-meaning benefactors?

That's the nearest I can get to an intended reaction. Although why it's bad for elite colleges to respond to the market, and good for everyone else to, remains, shall we say, obscure. And adjuncts – who far outnumber tenured radicals – are as unmentioned as community colleges.

It's the 2000's version of redbaiting. Pick a few wildly unrepresentative outrages, and tar an entire system with them. (If the article were entitled “Is the Ivy League Still Worth It?,” it would at least be a little closer to honest.) Moving from outrage to outrage, without even a feint towards actual analysis, the piece is obviously intended to generate self-righteous, undifferentiated anger. And the taxpayers who feel that anger direct it at the public sector, where it damages the reasonably-priced majority.

Call the article a limited success. I'm angry, and maybe even self-righteous. But I know precisely why.


Dean Dad

They are not alone. John McCain said (in the un-coached second half hour of his interview this past week) that millionaires are not rich. If you think that an income of 3 M$ per year puts you in the "middle class" (which it might, at Princeton), you might also think that The University of Michigan is for rich losers and the poor or that public high schools get as much money per student as it cost to go to the private schools he or his kids attended.

In contrast, as you point out, our community college provides an education at a per-student cost (tuition plus state funds) that is significantly less than the amount the public secondary schools get.

A push for an education or a science debate went nowhere. It is too bad that no one can engage the two candidates in a bait-free 2-hour discussion of education like the one organized by Rick Warren.

Furthermore, I think your fear about a misdirected anger at public higher ed institutions is well founded within the context of what seems to be a sustained and growing tide of anti-intellectualism in the U.S. right now.

Political capitalization on the issue (currently by Republicans) could very well mirror the serious blows to public support of the arts dealt by the ascendant Christian Conservative movement in the 1990s. By toting out a few egregious exceptions (then misinterpreting or refusing to interpret them), they were able to slash the already small governmental support of the arts. They could then claim victory as both moral and fiscal champions without much of the public ever knowing that most of the arts affected had no similarity to the examples that were attacked or that the budgetary savings were comparatively minuscule. Now we have less art.
Maybe that article WAS written ten years ago, well seven anyway:
Dear Dean Dad,
"reasonably priced majority"
Ha. HahahahahahahahahahhahahahahahahahahaHa!.
I started at Local Community College (living with the 'rents), got a fantastic start, and transferred to In-State Flagship Uni (renting a room in a 14 person co-op owned by a non-profit). I got scholarships and need-based grants. I never owned a car or a cell phone, and many weeks spent less than $10 disposible income. I always got used textbooks, and not everything that was said to be "required" but only what I found needful.
My parents had been saving for my college (in savings bonds, which, I will grant, may not have been the highest yield option) since I was an infant. They helped out a *lot*. They didn't have any other kids to pay for, but they are not particularly well-off.
I worked work-study jobs (sometimes two at once) throughout my time at Uni.

In short, I am reasonably bright, and reasonably thrifty. I took the cheapest possible route that I knew of. I still came out ~$14,000 in debt (I fully appreciate that is not bad compared to some! I also fully appreciate that is a heck of a lot of money!).
I love education, and *especially* community colleges. I am pretty darn far from "anit-intellectual" (I'm getting a PhD in Molecular Medicine now; thankfully my subsidized loans are in deferment).
But college is expensive . If I had gone the artist route, it wouldn't have been worth the cost. Scientists have a harder time opting out of the "wizards license" racket.
Economically poor but well-educated grad student
Becca -- the largest cost of college is and has always been the deferred wages. That $14k is a fraction of what you could have earned if you'd simply gotten an office drone job.

Academia is a lot more intellectually and politically monolithic than I thought!
I'm worried about the misdirected anger too. All this focus on large endowments and fancy facilities, but I thought I heard the govt had cut the budget for Pell Grants? My university has markedly less money for work-study than it did three years ago--that's driving our students out of univ jobs that try to ease up during finals week, and into mall jobs where they must maintain a car and the manager doesn't schedule around their classes. But I don't see that hitting the papers....
You disparage factories of elegant privilege wherein maintaining self-serving untenable positions is inculturated active ignorance - though stupidity, religion, or insanity are passively adequate.

McCain's credentials are impeccable: Christ-besotted incompetence dating back to his Annapolis class standing, 894/899. Bush the Lesser's life record screams confluence of overwhelming ignorance with overweening arrogance plus a fat dollop of personal savior.

When a ship sinks slaves chained to its oars will drown. Management beating on the big drum has a flotation device. Personal success arises from process not product. NEVER be productive.
The 'deferred income' argument is only valid if you would end up in the same/similar job over time. That's often true, but HR will refuse to consider any candidate without a degree in many cases(*), and in other cases you might start out a little behind your peers but have the contextual knowledge to move into management far quicker.

(*) This is sometimes bogus, but sometimes required to keep from being inundated with mostly unqualified candidates. Ask any software developer what happens when you put out an open job listing.
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