Private Colleges and the white middle class



In a recent blog in the Washington Post, Max Ehrenfreund suggests that private colleges are a waste of money for white, middle class kids. He asks: “Is it worth unloading your life’s savings or having your child take on tens of thousands of dollars in student loans?”

Mr. Ehrenfreund notes the disparity in the average four-year private college cost over the same attendance at a four-year public school. He cites a number of studies on “the happiest people” as defined principally by student indebtedness, whether higher earnings of private college graduates are the result of what they learned or because they had greater talent, and the greater level of debt if students attend private colleges beyond four years.

Ehrenfreund argues, however, that financial aid at wealthier private schools with generous financial aid practices might be more attractive for low income, first generation college students.

While Ehrenfreund raises a number of legitimate issues, the basic facts do not support his analysis. He develops characterizations and speculations from unconnected surveys and research that use different measuring criteria and research methodologies. In doing so, Ehrenfreund presents a bias that illuminates real issues without really understanding how the financing of higher education works.

There is a sharp contrast to draw.

First, America still has plenty of good paying jobs available without a college degree. Further, for those high school graduates who do choose to attend college, public institutions provide an excellent option; indeed, approximately fifty percent of first-time freshmen now begin at community colleges.

Second, earning a college degree relies on an assumption of shared sacrifice. Is an expected family contribution using federally-sanctioned need formulas really so off putting if we can agree that these families should have “skin in the game,” subject to their ability to pay?

Third, does repayment of an average debt of $28,000 upon graduation — or the cost of a fully-loaded mid-size car paid back over many years at heavily subsidized loan rates — really constitute “unloading your life’s savings”? Or, more likely, is the problem that Americans are increasingly unwilling to save for college seeing a college education more as an entitlement than a family responsibility?

Indeed, is the “massive debt” described actually more a function of the added loans that come from graduate and professional training after obtaining a college degree?

Let’s be clear. We are reaching an inflection point due to rising costs, inefficient management, and declining state and federal subsidies exacerbated by the deep recession. Prices charged to support rising costs cannot continue to rise rapidly for many more years. And for those middle class families whose children choose social service or other related jobs that pay modest salaries after graduation, there is a crisis already.

Ehrenfreund also questions “happiness” ratios and whether private colleges and universities offer “value added” connections that make attendance worthwhile. Ehrenfreund appropriately highlights the value of good mentorship on college campuses.

On this level, Ehrenfreund is correct. At the most successful colleges, mentoring does make a critical difference not only in “happiness” but also in promoting time to completion and fostering alumni connections, beginning with internships and externships to support higher post graduation employment rates.

But, here’s the thing. Mentorship – dedicated teaching faculty, good research facilities, psychological services, robust student residential life programs, internships, and career placement – costs money. It’s what most private colleges do well. It’s also what drives up their costs, even before the financial aid discounts kick in. Talent may play a huge role in success. Yet it helps to be in a place where experienced mentors recognize and support talented students.

Most college applicants choose their institution for two reasons. They “know it when they feel it,” especially if the financial aid package works. The best colleges work to provide a heterogeneous environment by making room for poorer students, offering sharply defined academic programs, and increasingly, crafting measurable outputs.

“Happiness” is not simply about the money a graduate makes. It’s about whether the four years made a difference and how the student used these four years to “seize the day.” Ehrenfreund is right – you can do this almost anywhere.

The trick is to keep a diverse higher education experience in place – public and private — now over 300 years old and largely a gift from social experimentation practices in the 20th Century that produced everything from the GI Bill to Pell Grants. America will be damaged irreparably if the financial aid model supporting millions of us becomes unsustainable and portions of it collapse.

The problem is basic and structural. We need a new model. That’s the story hidden behind the anecdotes and the selective, unrelated research.

Private colleges are hardly a waste of time for white, middle class kids. For some of us, they defined who we became because we found the mentors, worked hard, and earned the happiness.

In America, higher education is a gift from the generations that preceded us who understood its value as a legacy. We can fix the financial aid model if we have the will and creativity. But in doing so we must not destroy the diversity among colleges and universities to support the foundation upon which higher education is built — access and choice.