My 50th birthday coincided with another significant event, a need to buy a car. I had always purchased conservative vehicles, but I had a secret desire for something grander. I wanted a doctor’s car, and in my mind, that meant a Mercedes.
I accepted the fact that this was strictly an emotional purchase, and that it symbolized that I had arrived as a professional. The Mercedes that I purchased was dark metallic green with a tan leather interior. I thought it was beautiful, in an understated German way.
I felt like every driver was watching me as I drove it off the lot, and my chest swelled with pride to own such a luxurious vehicle. That euphoria faded with the realization that my Mercedes was intrinsically no different than the Ford that I previously owned.
After my car’s warranty expired, I was gobstruck with the enormous expense of maintaining my Mercedes. When I would bring the car in for a simple repair the cost would escalate as the dealership’s customer service writer would always find something else that needed repair. I would bring the car in for an oil change and leave paying a $1000 bill.
After a few years, I had enough of my luxury experience and traded in my low mileage doctor’s car for a simple Honda. The Honda delivered, while the Mercedes only promised. The experience was an excellent life-lesson.
The news has been abuzz with a new celebrity scandal, this one involving parents cheating the system so that their underperforming kids can get into selective colleges. The scandal consists of a man named William Singer, and his sham non-profit organization. Individuals of power and means paid Mr. Singer enormous amounts of money for him to work his magic with their unscholarly offspring. His deception went above and beyond ghostwriting personal essays. He created false identities, photoshopped prospective student heads on stock photos of athletes, had test proctors change answers, and bribed various university officials with cold hard cash. He claims that he has helped over 700 students cheat their way into college.
It would be naive to think that he is an island unto himself. Common sense dictates that this case is just the tip of a much more massive iceberg, its specifics made more interesting because celebrities, such as Felicity Huffman, and Lori Loughlin are involved.
I have a daughter who is a freshman at a large Midwestern university. When my wife asked her what she thought about the above scandal she seemed insouciant noting, “How is that any different from donating money for a building which then gets your kid accepted into that school.” She was, of course, correct. People with clout have always had a higher chance of getting their children accepted into a selective college, as opposed to those who lack influence. In fact, a legacy applicant has a three-fold better chance of getting admitted into a selective college than an applicant who doesn’t have such lineage.
I recently read an NYT’s article on the heels of the above story. It involved 4 excellent students and their efforts to get into highly selective colleges. One of the case studies currently is a student at the high school where my kids have attended. This girl achieved a near perfect SAT score and had a GPA of 4.8 out of a possible 4.0. She was active in clubs and organizations. She was involved in leadership positions. Yet, she was rejected by her first choice, Harvard. I can’t imagine that there was anything else that she could have done to have been considered. When you look at her impressive credentials and compare them to lesser students who were accepted, it makes you wonder about the real value of such an education.
There are over 5300 colleges and universities in our country, yet many students feel that they have to attend only a selective few. In a world where college tuition and fees are extraordinarily expensive, these colleges go above and beyond and hit new heights as far as costs are concerned.
Does attending these schools significantly impact the future of a college student? This is a complicated question, but the bottom line is generally, “no.”
At this point, you are probably recalling the frequently quoted study that noted that students who attended the most selective colleges have been shown to have significantly more earning potential than those who attended the least selective colleges. This statistic may be accurate, but the cause and effect association is not as direct as you may think. Other important factors need to be added in. For instance, the caliber of a student at a highly selective college is likely higher, as is their socioeconomic position, and their family connections. In fact, if you take a look at the wage gap between students from highly selective colleges vs. less selective colleges the earning difference disappears with students with similar SAT scores.
Other statistics worth noting is that the majority of CEOs from the top 100 Fortune 500 companies did not attend an Ivy League school. When Wall Street recruiters were asked where they found the best candidates, it wasn’t from Ivy League schools; instead, they listed the University of Illinois, Arizona State, and Purdue.
Most universities are bursting with highly academic faculty; there is no shortage of PhDs in the college world. An undergraduate experience includes a wide diversity of classes, usually presented at an introductory level. Is there a significant difference between English 101 at a local college vs. a highly selective school?
We are currently dealing with an artificially created frenzy where admittance to an ultra-expensive highly selective school becomes the ultimate prize for both the student and their proud family. However, I have to think that an education at such an institution may feel similarly to my Mercedes experience. The initial euphoria can quickly give way to frustration once you realize that you are paying 4-5 times the cost for something that is not 4-5 times better.
As parents, we need to help our kids see the reality of their life decisions. College shouldn’t be an experience, like a holiday vacation, it should be an education for the future. Part of being an adult is making wise decisions, including the value and benefit of a school.
For the ultra-rich spending hundreds of thousands of dollars is insignificant, but such a debt can be life-altering for a typical 21
It is my hope that the above scandal helps potential students and parents alike examine their higher education goals, and to explore all rational options. There is a big difference between true value and hype.