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Dennis Marek: Where should I go to college?

March 24, 2019

When I first started to write this article last week, I was most concerned with college selection, prestigious vs. state school, and college costs. Then, this week, the news broke of how parents and coaches were bribing the system to get their kids, or favored athletes into the upper elite universities. While that rocks the ethics boat pretty severely, the rest of what I had written before the scandal broke still is germane.

I was coming home from my senior high school prom. On the table was a note from my father. “Wake us.” I went up the stairs to their bedroom with great trepidation. Who had died? What was wrong? Both parents sat up and smiled. “We received a call late this afternoon. You got the scholarship!” An almost full ride to DePauw University. I couldn’t sleep. This is where I had dreamed of going ever since spending a weekend on their campus for a scholarship award. Without this special scholarship, it was out of our financial reach. That evening was almost 59 years ago, but it is like yesterday. The stress of being admitted to the school of my choice finally subsided.

So, I had been accepted to the college of my choice. It seemed so important at the time, and I have no regret of my choice even today. I have gone through the college selection with four children and a stepdaughter. Through those experiences I have learned a lot. First, be careful where you take that child on his or her first real college visit. It appears that first impressions really stick. Make sure you or they can afford that school. DePauw had been my first real visit.

Second, a college close to your home can be important if you want to visit your child with any frequency. California or Massachusetts are a long weekend jaunt.

Third, does the school fit the purpose of that child’s education? If one wants to be a New York City financier, then some schools are far better choices in securing that first job.

With all that being said, does it really matter where you go to college? This year about 2 million Americans will apply to college. Most will aim for schools not far away and without a famous name. But thousands of families will have their child apply to elite universities, where the costs are enormous and the selection process becomes long and stressful. Some parents are spending thousands of dollars before even applying. These expenditures include tutoring for application tests, expensive visits and even consultants on how to get your child in this particular institution. Is it all worth it?

Recently, I read of a study by two economists, Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger, who posited a quite different result of the benefits of these elite schools. According to this study, if one removes the student quality from the mix, an increase of salary for the one going to the top-rated school just is not there. In other words, if two students have the same SAT score and apply to the same colleges, but one gets into Stanford and one doesn’t, they still can expect to earn virtually the same throughout their careers. It turns out that one’s SAT score is a better predictor of success than the name of the university.

Interestingly, a newer study re-examined this original Dale-Krueger study. It agreed with it in regard to male students, but found a woman attending a university with a 100-point higher SAT average increased her earnings by 14 percent while reducing her chance of marriage by 4 percent. But is the attendance at an elite school by a female the reason for higher per-hour wages, or is it her having worked more hours as she delayed marriage? Did she stay longer in the workforce?

A second exception to the foregoing study is in the case of minorities and lower-income families. Evidence shows lower-income students at an elite school have a greater chance of reaching the top tier of earning than do minority students in general.

So, why these exceptions? They all have the same professors, classrooms, experiences and take the same exams. Why do wealthier males attending these prestigious schools not receive the same advantage in upward financial mobility as the lower-income and minority students? Because college is more than instruction. It introduces these minority students to networking and social interaction at a new level. The students of the wealthier families already have gained these experiences through their parents, whether it is how to act the part in the workforce, getting dad’s help finding that first job or a summer internship through whom the parent knows. Elite schools can add these elements to the student who did not have these social skills or influential family ties.

Finally, should one avoid most of the stress and choose a college of lesser prestige but at a more affordable price? When we read of the massive amount of debt a student has upon graduation, even those attending online schools, we are dumbfounded. Without massive scholarships, price should enter the decision-making as well. Saving on tuition can reduce the after-graduation pressure on the student along with present relief for the parents who are sacrificing their lives and even their retirement savings for the student. Analyze what four years would cost at a particular college and decide whether the prestige of the university is worth the extra debt and pressures. Isn’t that what makes the most economic sense? Sure, some universities have better alumni parties than others, but financial survival has a significant place in these big decisions.