Arnold Kling  

The College Choice

Happy Totalitarians... Modeling the Man Date...

Concerning the choice of where to attend collegeTyler Cowen asks,

If parents (and their children) are loaded with biases, is behavioral economics useful?

I suspect the core bias is parents wanting to feel they have done everything possible to help the kid, rather than maximizing the kid's (or the world's) expected return.

I think that there are at least two other biases worth mentioning. One is concern with standing in one's peer group. It seems to me that a lot of parents compare the college that their child attends with the colleges that other children attend. For many parents, the status of the child's college appears to strongly affect the self-esteem of the parents. Perhaps that accounts for the story I read recently in the Washington Post that quoted a college admissions officer as saying that almost all of the complaints they receive about students not being admitted come from parents.

The other bias, closely related, is fear of nonconformity. I believe that too many college students are not emotionally ready for the experience. They go because their peers and their parents expect them to go. Their parents expect them to go because their parents' peers expect their children to go.

I think that the way to break the college cartel may be to offer a one-year program that is in between high school and college. It would be more grown-up than high school, but not as unstructured and removed from life as college.

College is a highly unnatural setting. Students do not have to shop for food, worry about budgets for entertainment, or face consequences for behavior that is irresponsible if not downright illegal. Instead of learning life skills, they are learning escape-from-life skills.

Jackie and I cannot come up with any good reasons why our youngest daughter, who has the best grades and SAT scores of all of our children, would not be better off finding an apartment with a friend and attending community college. We're not persuaded that we got our money's worth out of sending the other two to four-year colleges.

COMMENTS (19 to date)
eric writes:

The college degree used to be a valuable signal and value-add to boot. Now so many more people graduate the signal is not nearly as good, and many subjects are blather (eg, speech, journalism, anything with "science" in its name). So much better to learn the objective stuff on-line or in high school, and then get valuable life skills, and perhaps demonstrating entrepreneurship, by working from ages 19-22.

Andy writes:

What about the idea that because a large portion of the nation's best and brightest end up at traditional 4 year schools, by attending one, your daughter will be exposed to peers who are intellegent, driven, motivated, able to challenge her etc. This is not to say that amazing people aren't at CC or in the real world, but a lot of what is learned in college is through contact with peers, and quality 4 year schools are a way to maximize exposure to those amazing people.

brad writes:

I went to a community college before transferring to a large university. The big difference: being surrounded by studious peers at the large university made me more motivated. The peer pressure of seeing everyone around me studying at the large university made me feel like an oddball if I didn't.

Scott Peterson writes:

I have been thinking along the same lines as you for a few years..I have a BA and MBA and sometimes wonder if it was worth the money. At one point, my wife and I calculated that her sister's family whose husband was in the active-duty Air Force was as in good financial shape as we were. That was due to the many benefits that active duty military receive that the rest of the working world gets deducted from their paycheck.
Coincidentally, a blog post in a similar vein turned up in a totally different context this morning: 5 Reasons to Skip College.

Bill Conerly writes:

I taught at a small liberal arts college many years ago, with students that were pretty average. Many of them were in college because their parents would not support them otherwise, and they thought they could not support themselves. I spent half a class period once with a group of freshmen trying to convice them that if four of them shared a two-bedroom apartment, and they all worked at minimum wage, they could get by. So they didn't have to study at all. Just wait until you really want to study, I advised them. Alas, I was a failure as a professor--not a single of these students dropped out.

Matt James writes:

If the pay, benefits, tenure, and research opportunities were the same at George Mason and some community college in the DC area, (and assuming no costs associated with the transfer) would you leave your job to go teach at junior college? Something tells me the answer would be no.

Matt writes:

It will be interesting to see what happens to colleges over the next couple of decades. They don't command the respect they used to. I see a lot of smart people challenging the idea of college as a worthwhile investment of time and money. I sure don't remember seeing that fifteen years ago when I was heading off to state university.

Arnold Kling writes:

Matt James.
I am an adjunct professor at Mason, which is a polite way of saying highly-exploited labor. I get paid $3000 to teach one class, of 100 students. So each student gets $30 worth of my time a semester, and Mason takes the profits.

No employee benefits. No research support. As my wife points out, they even make me pay for my own parking.

I do it for the same reason that teach in high school. In high school, I don't get paid. At Mason, the pay is more of an insult than anything else.

I feel sorry for people who are adjuncts who actually need the money. I feel sorry for students who take classes from adjuncts who need the money. At least when I put time into grading 10 writing assignments per student per semester I don't calculate what my hourly wage turns out to be.

Pete F writes:

If your daughter is considering attending law school in the future, then see Prof. Christine Hurt's Admissions Myths (Last in a Series) over at Conglomerate Blog where she discusses her time on the admissions committee at Marquette Law School. Be sure to read the second myth "It does not matter where you went to college, Part 2" in which she points out a problem with the increasingly common practice of attending a community college for two years then transferring to a 4-year school. I keep hearing more and more parents and counselors give this advice to high school students without considering how it might hurt their chances of getting into a top law or graduate school.

Steve writes:

Andy: what you said.

Scott Peterson: There's been a study that found that if you attend a nonselective school you gain no income advantage over people who stayed in the labor force.

Bill Conerly: why would anyone want to work minimum wage or share a bedroom if they didn't have to?

Pete F writes: Labor economist Ronald Ehrenberg says the same thing.

Bob Knaus writes:

Backpack through Guatemala for a year. Or learn how to swing a hammer at Habitat for Humanity. Or get a job as a deckhand on a yacht. There are 1001 things a young person can do instead of going to college right away, and the great majority of them would make them better prepared for college when they do go.

Tom Schofield writes:

When I went to a state university - many years ago - the best students I metwere those who had gone into the military before matriculating. Education - like youth - is (often) wasted on the young. And, from what I read, the more prestigious the school the more indoctrination and the less education. Has your daughter considered the Women's Marine Corps, "the fewer, the prouder?"

Alcibiades writes:

How learning really works:
You start with an end: make money, perhaps. Then you devote yourself to learning about money-making opportunities. Perhaps you decide you want to sell crack. In that case, you hop on wikipedia and start learning about the chemistry of freebase cocaine. Ahh, baking soda...
You study supply-chains. Carlos Lehder bought himself an island to fly tons of cocaine into the country -- hey that might work. You research the Cayman islands...
Okay, horribly extreme example, but the point of the matter is, you start with an end, and "learning" is that process whereby you try to come up with appropriate means to attain that end. It is a dynamic process, whereby new challenges presented along the way require new learning and new applications of that learning. That is fundamentally why 4-year-schools are a waste of time and money. There is no catch-all education that utterly prepares you for a particular vocation. "On the job" training, on the other hand, allows for real-time, problem-solving, lifelong learning to occur. Remember apprenticeship? That was "more like it."
/currently attends a selective college.
//Does not sell crack.

dearieme writes:

Before going to college, my daughter followed the now common British habit of taking a "gap year". She worked like mad at two jobs for 6 months and then travelled off to the other side of the world. I think both sets of 6 months did her good. Mind you, she still expected her college education to be funded by The Bank of Mum and Dad.

Barkley Rosser writes:


I am sorry you are suffering being an adjunct. It really is a ripoff situation.

However, while I do not know what the setup is at GMU, at JMU and pretty much every other college or university that I have known this detail of, full time faculty also have to pay for their own parking. So, that is probably not the worst of your indignities.

Here is another option that is underused. Let her get a job in a state that has a good state school. After a period of being financially independent and possibly taking classes at community colleges, she will be a resident of the state and can take classes at the state school. This way she learns how to live independently and responsibly, doesn't spend a lot of money on college, and ends up with a respected degree that won't prejudice others against her in the future.

Loweeel writes:

Arnold, my mom is a lawyer, and taught a "law for non-law students" course to business students as an adjunct at Hunter College for a year. I think she might have earned less that you did.

Another thing you're forgetting is the comparable experience of Israel. Granted, we don't NEED to send our men in the army for 3 years, nor all our women for 21 months, nor would any such period need to be that long. But I agree that some sort of intermediate intellectual experience would be valuable for many people.

Anonymous writes:

College is a highly unnatural setting. Students do not have to shop for food, worry about budgets for entertainment, or face consequences for behavior that is irresponsible if not downright illegal. Instead of learning life skills, they are learning escape-from-life skills.

That sounds awesome! I want to go back to college if that's really what it's like. In an anarcho-capitalist society they should definitely keep "college" around!

Robert Book writes:

As another adjunct at GMU, I have to endorse fully what Brad said above, that the quality of one's fellow students is important, and that will much higher at an "elite" college with tough admissions standards than at a community college with none.

This will be the case even if the teaching quality is identical, which may or may not be the case. I suspect that even if the teaching quality means aren't that different, I bet the variance is higher at community college.

Second: Arnold, you say you feel sorry for students taking courses from adjuncts who really need the money -- but you want to send your daughter to community college, when community colleges disproportionately employ adjuncts?

I went to Duke as an undergrad, and while there were certainly some quality issues, but in four years I had one course taught by a graduate student, one by a visiting (full-time) faculty member, one by an adjunct, and the rest by full-time tenured or tenure-track faculty.

If you really believe that adjuncts on average don't teach as well, then don't pick a college that uses a lot of adjuncts.

Third, a lot depends on what you want to major in. If you are majoring in a quantitative field -- science, math, engineering, computer science, or even economics -- the fluff courses and classroom political correctness will not be much of a concern. It may be quite easy for a history or English professor to get away with teaching worthless fluff and grading based on political agreement, but that's a lot harder for a professor of electrical engineering or biochemistry. If you want a degree in something like that, it might be worth the trouble to go to an "elite" university instead of a community college.

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