Gas station without pumps

2013 November 15

Is college worth the price?

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:05
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On the homeschool-to-college mailing list ( there has been a lot of discussion lately about whether private colleges are worth the $250,000 sticker price for four years.

The discussants generally divide into several camps:

  • There is no way that any college is ever worth that much.  Go to a cheaper state college.
  • No one pays sticker price—the actual cost is lower at top-ranked private schools than at state schools.
  • Why not do two years of community college, then the cheapest bachelor’s degree you can find?
  • What you are buying for that huge chunk of money is access to a network of people with money and power—it can be worth it if your career depends on access to such a network.
  • When I was a student, …

Of course, everyone is right and everyone is wrong, as is usual in such debates.  The important question is why the student is going to college—what is the point of it?  Only then can you assess whether the price is reasonable or outrageous, and whether it is worth going to college at all.

A lot of people see college as a job ticket—the median earnings of college graduates is much higher than the median earnings of high school students.  If that is the primary goal of a college education, then it is pretty easy to do a calculation to determine the return on investment of buying a college degree.  Lots of people have done that calculation (Google ROI college degree), but I’m not very interested in that view of college, nor with the mindset that sees a college degree as a purchase, rather than as road marker in one’s education.

Another common view of college is that it is a time to make life-long friends (perhaps marriage partners), and that the social opportunities of college are not to be wasted.  While I made some friends in college, and more in grad school, few of them have become lifelong friends—I may see someone from college once every 2 or 3 years, at most. Perhaps if I were a more social individual, that side of college life would have had more importance for me. For my son,  I think that the social aspect of college will be slightly more important than it was for me, but I believe he is mainly interested in finding congenial, talented groups of people with whom he can do things he enjoys (like acting, designing computer programs and hardware, discussing esoteric features of programming languages, learning advanced math and physics, and so forth). [I’d be pleased if he found a girlfriend also, though I didn’t manage that until grad school.] Finding concentrations of congenial, talented people outside colleges and universities is difficult—it’s not that they don’t exist, just that it is hard to find and join them.

Still another view of college is that it is all about book learning—getting a lot of stuff learned in a particular field or in a broad array of fields that mark one as being “educated”. This is a common view for the parents of teenagers in public schools, but a bit less common on the home school lists.  A lot of the home school parents realize that their kids can learn what they want to without needing the structure of a college—the kids have been doing it for years.  Sometimes having a course structure is useful for setting deadlines or determining the scope of a period of study, but other times having a project that needs certain skills and knowledge is sufficient motivation and guidance for the learning.

MOOCs have been a very good deal for home-schoolers, providing the structure of a course without the cost. Of course, the zero cost has a downside—a lot of kids just dabble with the MOOCs and don’t commit to really learning the material, the way they might if they were paying for the instruction.  So even if kids could do the book learning for much less money than going to college, the sunk cost of college tuition provides a powerful incentive to continue and complete the degree.  (Of course most of the sunk cost is coming from the parents, so the parents end up having to motivate the student.)

To determine what college is worth for my son, I’m mainly interested in his long-term well-being—not just the next four years, but the next sixty. I think that he might be happiest if he got a PhD and became an academic, though that career is looking a lot less attractive for the next 30 years than it did 40 years ago, when I was an undergrad—salaries have not kept pace with inflation, workloads have increased, and research grants have gotten much harder to secure.  He might be happy as a working computer engineer or programmer, though I think he’ll find that the workplace is full of only marginally competent people, unless he gets very lucky in where he works.  I think he’s more likely to find congenial workmates if he joins a startup with people he has worked well with for some time, than if he joins an existing corporate structure.  But if he works for a startup when would he have time for acting (or a life)? It would be easier for him to find a group of competent people to do a startup with at some colleges than others (Stanford, for example, has a culture of creating startups, some of which have even been spectacularly successful).  Making a successful startup without colleagues found in college seems much riskier to me.

Most of the careers that would hold his attention require at least a bachelor’s degree, so I’m beginning with the assumption that he’ll do at least four years of college.

The University of California campuses provide a pretty good education for about $32,000 a year (figure $130k–160k for 4 years when tuition inflation is included).  That looks like the cheapest path we’d consider.  The cheapest route (2 years of community college, then transferring to a state school) is not likely to work for him. He has taken some community college courses as a high-school student, and they were fine for him then, but he is unlikely to find many colleagues at his intellectual level in a community college.  If it were the only way he could afford to go to college, then he could make it work, but we’ve been saving 10% of household pre-tax earnings each year since he was born in a 529 college savings plan, so we have enough saved to give him more attractive options.

Based on “net price calculators” from top-notch private schools that my son is considering, we would be expected to pay $42k–61k a year (figure $180k–$250k for 4 years). Incidentally, those net price calculators vary a lot in their ease of use.  Several schools use a net price calculator that can use information stored with the student’s College Board login—those are the easiest to use once you’ve filled one of them out, since the information does not have to be looked up and re-entered for each college.  Unfortunately, many of the colleges my son is considering don’t use that method, so I’ve not done net-price calculations for all of them.  Some of the colleges also include some merit aid in their packages, which means that the net-price calculators are too inaccurate to get more than a very rough idea of price from anyway.

At some schools we’d be expected to pay the full sticker price, while at others the discount is about $10k. Note that some colleges expect us to pay over half our household’s pre-tax earnings each year—they really penalize you for being thrifty and saving for college.  There undoubtedly exist schools that would give him a full merit scholarship, but they are unlikely to have enough intellectual stimulation in the fields that interest him to justify the time, even if the tuition is covered.  None of the schools we looked at provided anywhere near that level of merit aid.

Is the extra $50k–$100k for four years of a private college worth it? 

Well, it depends, of course.

In some colleges, what that money buys is “country club” dorms and activity centers—which don’t interest him very much.  Given that he is not a natural socializer, the network of political connections offered by some colleges is also of little value to him.  What I believe he values is working on projects too big for one person (both in theater and in engineering) and easy access to research opportunities. Some colleges provide more of both project-based learning and undergraduate research opportunities than others, and it isn’t necessarily correlated with public/private or big/small.

The University of California campuses do not provide as much of either projects or undergraduate research as most of the private schools he is looking at.  Although the UCs  have a lot of research, the ones he would apply to also have a lot of grad students doing the research, and the openings for undergrads are not proportional to the huge numbers of students who might want them.  Just finding out about research opportunities, which often requires personal contact with the professor leading the research group, could be difficult. (I think that UCSC does much better at providing research opportunities to undergrads than the other UCs, probably because the grad students only make up 10% of the student body, but the faculty are expected to be just as productive in research as at the other UCs—so faculty have to include undergrads to have enough people working in the lab.)  The classes at UCB and UCLA (the 2 UC campuses we toured) are huge in computer science, with upper-division courses having 50–200 students in them.  It is very hard to make connections with the faculty or with other students in such huge courses.  Acting at UCLA also looked to be almost impossible for non-theater majors—even theater minors couldn’t get roles (according to the theater majors we talked to).  The acting minor at UCB looked much more reasonable, though.  So access to faculty, to projects, and to research may be better at several of the private schools we looked at—that could be worth the price differential.

I also think that some of the private schools are more likely to provide the emotional support that my son might need to get through 4 years of college.  I’m not thinking of formal services like counseling or health care, which may be just as good or better at the larger schools, but of a sense of community and students feeling like family, rather than a random collection of strangers struggling alongside one another.  Different campuses really had a different feel to them when we visited.  Some felt like family, some like business partnerships, some like academic competitions, some like sports bars, and some like ant heaps with 1000s of anonymous, nearly interchangeable individuals. I think I’d be willing to pay more for a college that felt like it would be a home for him, rather than an office or a study cubicle (and certainly more than I’d be willing to pay for him to go to a sports bar).

The bottom line is that we saved enough for him to go to a private college, and if he gets into one that is a good fit, we’ll pay what it takes for him to go.  I think that the extra value is there in a few schools to justify the increased price.  Of course, there are also many, many schools that don’t look like a good fit, and that would be worth less to him than UC, but he is not planning to apply to any of those, despite the pounds of paper they have sent him in postcards and brochures. He’ll also be applying to a few UC campuses, as “safety” schools, since almost all the private schools he is applying to have very low admissions probabilities.


  1. I think the reason we can debate this question endlessly is that there is no one-size-fits-all answer. The cost of college really depends on each family’s financial situation: income, savings, cost of living, each school’s financial aid policy, the availability of and the student’s eligibility for merit aid. And then there is for some people, as we have seen, the influence of more abstract factors such as prestige.

    For example: You are being “penalized” for having saved conscientiously; my guess is your savings are disproportionately large compared to your income, and at some of the schools you are considering your son would receive more aid had you saved less. We expected that our income by the time ds was ready for college would leave us ineligible for aid, so we saved as much as we could; had we anticipated a lower income level, I think we would have altered our savings plan.

    There also is the trade-off between a “better” school and a school that offers merit aid. We are trying to discern between those schools that are actively engaged in building their resources and academic environment and those that are not trying so hard. There is something very appealing about a school that is motivated.

    Comment by SarahG — 2013 November 16 @ 05:59 | Reply

    • It is absolutely true that different solutions apply for different students and different families. My musings here were not intended to apply to everyone, but to work through my own thinking on what applied to our family.

      Our savings are “disproportionately large compared to our income” in the US—we’re a very frugal family on a better than average income (see Useless advice from the credit union). Of course, in a different culture than the current American, borrow-spend-and-declare-bankruptcy culture, we would not be seen as unusual for living well within our means.

      It would be nice not to have to spend so much of our savings on college, but having my son attend a college that is a good fit for him is more important to me than keeping the money. I know that students can get a decent education at less expensive schools (I did my BS at a large state school), and that where one goes to grad school matters more than where one goes for undergrad, but I’d still like to do the best for him that I can afford. The tricky parts are figuring out what is the best for him and then convincing that school to accept him.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 November 16 @ 08:12 | Reply

  2. Is your impression of access for undergraduate research at the big UCs based on talking to professors and whether they have undergraduates in their labs? My perception at UWashington was that good undergraduates could find positions in laboratories (though not always paid, but that they were available for credit). Potentially such positions were easier to find in biology labs (which may need more worker bees, and thus can take risks with students who haven’t already proved their intellectual chops). But, my perception on the availability of undergraduate research opportunities is that the experience depends on very specific variables, particular faculty, particular students, particular fields, particular laboratories, and not just on the statistics (i.e. number of grads/undergrads).

    Now, I guess there is the caveat that some research focused small universities (and this is a small group, including Caltech & Harvey Mudd, and I don’t know what else), there is an official push towards making undergraduate research available to students. Caltech, I think, would say that it’s main goal is to train independent thinkers/researchers, and thus, undergraduate research is an expected part of the experience, that they are selecting students because they think they are capable of doing research and that they want there to be opportunities when they arrive.

    (Harvey Mudd might be similar).

    Comment by bj — 2013 November 17 @ 10:56 | Reply

    • At UCLA we talked to a faculty member, who told us that he does not accept undergrads into his graduate courses, and that only about 5–10% of undergrad CS majors do research with faculty.

      At UCB, we were unable to talk with the faculty member we had contacted ahead of time (he was too busy meeting with grad students), so we talked with some undergrads. This was not a scientific sample, but the impression that they had was that undergrads could get involved in research (and a couple had), but that few CS students did.

      At UCSC, where I teach, student involvement in research is very much field-dependent. All the bioengineering majors do research projects with faculty in their senior year. In computer engineering and electrical engineering, all the students do a major design project (often industry sponsored). In computer science, only a tiny fraction do research or projects extending over more than one course (except for the game-design majors, who do a major design project).

      At Harvey Mudd, all students do a senior design project, and we were told that most also do at least one summer research project as well. At Caltech, we heard very little about academics, other than that all science and engineering was physics and all physics was math (a physics-centric view of the world that does not sit well with me). Caltech seemed to be more interested in telling us about their pranks and stage sets for parties.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 November 17 @ 11:19 | Reply

  3. I appreciate your insightful posts as I have a CS kid who is interested in some of the same schools. Research is huge for my son, so your observations about the lack of undergrad opportunities at UCLA, UCB, and UCSC are eye opening. I wonder if this is also true at UCSD and UCI?

    “Different campuses really had a different feel to them when we visited. Some felt like family, some like business partnerships, some like academic competitions, some like sports bars, and some like ant heaps with 1000s of anonymous, nearly interchangeable individuals.”

    Would you be willing to identify which campuses were which?

    Comment by Linda — 2013 November 19 @ 23:57 | Reply

    • UCSC has plenty of opportunities for undergrad research, more so probably than any other UC. The CS students don’t take advantage of it, and the CS faculty don’t push it, though (unlike the rest of the School of Engineering).

      I think that if you read the college tour posts, you’ll see which colleges fit in each category for us. Of course, different people will have very different reactions to the same campus, with one person seeing family where I saw sports bar, and another seem academic competition, where I saw family. Although I don’t much care for travel—particularly not changing hotels every night—I found the college visits worth the time.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2013 November 20 @ 08:10 | Reply

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