Colleges are selling “the experience” of being on campus. But if you are stuck in your parents’ basement, maybe the price is too steep.
For the upcoming school year, tuition at Yale College is $57,700. At Oberlin, it’s $57,654. At Caltech, it’s $54,570. Even after accounting for financial aid, the median net price of Forbes’ 2019 list of top-25 universities is $24,000.
For students who’ve been admitted to a selective college but don’t know whether, come fall, they’ll be soaking up college life or watching online lectures in their parents’ basement, there’s a simple question: Is it worth it?
After all, students are typically told there are three big benefits from attending a selective college or university: the campus experience, the exquisite academic instruction, and a brand that offers a big leg up in the labor market.
The campus experience evaporated this spring and plenty of elite colleges are coy about whether it will be restored come fall. Meanwhile, universities are busy insisting that their online stylings are a passable facsimile of their in-person experience — a stance at odds with their long-time insistence that they’re expensive precisely because they offer an irreplaceable experience. Yale’s admissions page says its housing system is “at the heart of the Yale experience” and Oberlin’s exclaims that, “with so much happening on campus, it would be easy to never leave!” If campuses are closed, that all falls by the wayside.
Boutique education might be bollocks
If campus is closed and students aren’t paying for an experience, perhaps they’re paying for that promised boutique education. Even if one sets aside concerns about the quality of teaching at elite colleges and universities, there’s cause to wonder whether faculty used to in-person teaching are prepared to design terrific online courses or deliver strong online instruction — even after they sit through a few compulsory trainings.
In fact, while there’s no doubt that virtual learning can be highly effective, that requires careful planning, curation of resources, multimedia offerings, and invested instructors.
None of this describes an elite college professor who has suddenly been ordered to throw next fall’s accounting or anthropology class online while finishing a conference paper and keeping an eye on the kids. Indeed, a Bay View Analytics survey of 826 faculty across 641 different universities reported that nearly half said they’d lowered their expectations for what work students will be able to do. Meanwhile, cheaper institutions that are used to providing online instruction and support might be a better bet when it comes to quality of instruction.
How big is the payday?
So, if students are paying boutique prices but can’t be confident they’re getting a boutique experience or top-shelf instruction, the cash payoff for that prestigious degree takes on heightened importance. After all, the question is not whether a college degree is a good investment — the evidence is pretty clear that most any college degree pays off financially (for reasons good and bad).
The issue is whether a degree from a pricey selective college offers a big enough payoff to be a better deal than one from a cheaper, less prestigious school. In a new analysis of federally collected data, Harvard Business School’s Joe Fuller and I find that, four years after graduation, graduates from very selective colleges have median earnings that are about $5,000 a year — or a little over 10% — higher than those of for graduates from open admissions and minimally selective schools.
What’s more, between 1993 and 2008, the earnings for graduates from less selective colleges gained ground on those from more selective institutions. The modest earnings differential means that, on average, paying an extra $100,000 or more to attend an elite college—rather than a cheaper alternative—may not be a savvy financial move. And note that this far-from-dazzling return assumes that students actually are on campus, developing relationships, networking, finding mentors, and partaking of on-campus interviews. On a closed campus, those relationship dynamics may be reduced — or even razed.
Now, those who peruse popular media accounts filled with tales of colleges that charge $50,000 a year may wonder whether cheaper, reliable choices exist. In truth, as Fuller and I note, students at very selective colleges and universities account for less than one-fourth of all bachelor’s degrees. The lion’s share of students attend institutions, whose four-year tuition can be covered by the sticker price of a year — or two — at an Oberlin or Yale.
Students who want to attend college should do so, remotely or no. But, especially this fall, they should think long and hard before paying premium prices for a discount rack degree.
Frederick M. Hess is director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). He is the co-author of a new report “Does Attending a More Selective College Equal a Bigger Paycheck?”
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