College Price vs. Value

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Great deals await...maybe.

The WSJ reported a few weeks ago on the effect that the economy is having on college choices, at least among families who have access to upper end colleges and universities.

But as Sarah’s college choice loomed last year, [her mother] Ms. Perrizo, a real-estate appraiser, and her husband, Richard Goldstein, an attorney, “were agonizing over whether to pay $52,000 for one year at NYU, or $18,000” at their state university, Ms. Perrizo says. Both regard a bachelor’s degree as “only the beginning” of higher education for students like their daughter, who is interested in international studies; they hope to help with her graduate-school costs.

Joseph Losco (chair of political science at Ball State) observes in the article that universities aren’t accustomed to competing on price – in fact, lowering tuition can sometimes tarnish a school’s reputation. The mother in the article compares the college choice to “shopping at Loehmann’s vs. Bloomingdale’s. I’m teaching my daughter to be a good shopper and to pick value.”

That comparison between two department stores — one known for its high value, the other for its high prices — struck me as inappropriate, but I’m sure that’s how many families view the college process. Or, at least, the way the mother structured the comparison was inappropriate. In my mind, it doesn’t matter whether you shop at an upscale or discount store: the question is, what are you buying? Upscale stores have lots of good bargains, as well as items that are well worth the price. As I have discovered too many times when buying earphones, though, discount stores are a waste of money if you buy something that’s worthless.

For me, choosing a college based on price is nothing new. When I was a high school senior (way back in 1994), I had offers from four schools: an Ivy League university, an elite liberal arts college, a public flagship university, and a public regional university. The first two (both top five schools in their class, according to US News and World Report, at least) had given me need-based aid, but the net cost would still have been about $25,000 per year. The two public schools (both in-state) offered me full-ride scholarships that covered tuition, housing, books, food, and even a little surplus. At the time, I was thinking of becoming a high school administrator (I have no idea why), so I wasn’t expecting a high income career post-college.

I ended up choosing the University of Louisville, and I’ve often wondered whether I would have gotten a better education at Yale or Williams. At UofL, as part of the school’s honors program, I was able to develop relationships with a number of faculty, traveled to England for a summer abroad, and even wrote an undergraduate research thesis. I was able to take graduate-level courses in my discipline (creative writing/poetry) without jumping through too many hurdles, and I found that I gained more from taking courses with nontraditional students than I would have expected. (Not to mention meeting my future wife and encountering the gospel of grace for the first time.)

It wasn’t all perfect – far from it. My freshmen-year roommate was kicked out of the dorms because he was keeping a handgun under his bed. I took a semester and a half of Japanese, but eventually dropped it because the instructor’s only qualification was that he was Japanese. Because many of my non-major, non-honors courses weren’t very difficult, I developed poor study habits that came back to haunt me when I was working on my undergrad and master’s theses. The size of the school  meant that it took me a while (almost 2 years) to find my niche of friends, and I almost transferred to a smaller, more elite school in hopes of finding kindred spirits. While my alma mater is certainly a “name brand” (especially in basketball), it won’t open doors like Yale does. At a summer event before I started college, where most of my fellow attendees were attending Ivy League schools, many of my fellow high school graduates asked me, “Why in the world are you going to Louisville?”

So, what is the connection between the price and value of a college education? Put another way, what would I have gained from paying an additional $100,000 for my college education by attending Yale or Williams instead of Louisville?

Photo credit: Brent and MariLynn via Flickr

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mikehickerson@gmail.com'

Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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One Comment

  • kle.seaton@gmail.com'
    Kelly commented on July 29, 2009 Reply

    I think no matter where you go, make sure that there are people who can serve as mentors and help you make the most of your education. For me, I enjoyed going to a small liberal arts school that helped to develop me into a well rounded person. The professors cared about us, and there was huge freedom to do and explore what we wanted to explore, vs. putting us all into the same mold. Of course, I supplemented my experience there with summer research opportunities and study abroad, so I was able to go beyond what was available at my school.

    I don’t necessarily think that price and quality go hand in hand – larger universities with lower costs may just have a larger pool to spread costs around (or huge football revenue that pays for other things…)

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