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