Tag Archives: college

Dear college my daughter attends

15 May

Before I get to the crux of this letter, my daughter had a great first year of college. She acclimated well. You challenged her academically. She felt safe on campus. For all of that, her mother and I are grateful.

Now, about the letter you sent us—the one asking us to give to the Parents Fund, which, among other things, you say provides scholarships for other students. Look, I’m all for giving every kid an opportunity to go to a fine university like yours. But we’re a little tied up right now helping support our daughter’s education. Three years from now, we’ll have another daughter hitting college age, so it will be awhile before we’re in a position to contribute.

Don’t worry. I offer an immediate alternative. You don’t have to look far to find it.



Voilà. Problem solved.

I’m not trying to pick on you, because nearly every college does the same thing. But hey, you sent us the letter, so…

College tuition has become like the MSRP for a new car. Everybody knows you’ll drop the price faster than a hipster caught holding an Air Supply album. The only question is how much. It makes no sense to expect your current customers to help support discounts for future customers.

n_Audi012Continuing the new-car analogy, let’s say I want to buy a 2015 Audi A6 (which I will… in 2021). It has an unholy sticker price of $56 thousand. I would be a fool to pay that.

“How much would you really take for it?”I ask the saleswoman.

She pretends to give it some serious thought.

“Fifity-five,” she says.

At this point, I can agree to the small “discount,” because I don’t enjoy haggling. Or I can continue the little dance.

“I won’t give a penny over fifty,” I say.

“The lowest we can go is fifty-two,” the saleswoman says.

With a grumble, I nod my acceptance.

Now let’s say the dealership calls me two weeks later and says, “Ron, we have a nice couple in here looking at the same car you bought, but they can’t afford sticker. If you would contribute a little money to the dealership, we can cut them a deal.”*


It sounds silly, but that’s what you’re doing when you request our help with scholarships.

Before you say that is not a fair comparison, I present you Exhibit A:

According to an article in the New York Times late last year, Converse College in South Carolina cut its tuition 43%, eliminating discounts, and did not lose revenue. A handful of other colleges are trying the same approach. I suspect you’ve already read the article, but let me quote a bit of it:

For decades, most private college pricing has reflected the Chivas Regal effect — the notion that whether in a Scotch or a school, a higher price indicates higher quality.

“Schools wanted a high tuition on the assumption that families would say that if they’re charging that high tuition, they must be right up there with the Ivies,” said David L. Warren, president of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities. “So schools would set a high tuition, then discount it. But when the schools in your peer group all have discounts, it becomes an untenable competition for students, with everyone having to increase their discounts.”

Colleges have become like car dealerships, each one trying to out-discount the other and not helping their bottom lines in the process. If there is any hang-up with the car analogy, it’s that you have to discount your product a lot more than a car dealership to remain competitive.

The problem is, the cost of college still remains too high after you discount it. Exhibit B: A recent article in Rolling Stone magazine, which reports how ridiculous the cost of college has become at the same time the value of a four-year degree is decreasing:

“Tuition costs at public and private colleges were, are and have been rising faster than just about anything in American society – health care, energy, even housing. Between 1950 and 1970, sending a kid to a public university cost about four percent of an American family’s annual income. Forty years later, in 2010, it accounted for 11 percent. Moody’s released statistics showing tuition and fees rising 300 percent versus the Consumer Price Index between 1990 and 2011.

Read the full article.

As I was drafting this letter, I came across an opinion piece on Al-Jazeera’s web site entitled College is a Promise the Economy Does Not Keep.**  Here’s a snippet:

College does not offer a better future, but a less worse one. College is not a cure for economic insecurity, but a symptom of the broader plague of credentialism.

 Read the full piece.

Again from the Rolling Stone article:

The average student now leaves school owing $27,000 – by entering an economy sluggishly jogging uphill at a fraction of the speed of climbing education costs.

Yikes. So, our kids are going into debt and for something that may not pay off for them. College loans are bad juju. When my daughter applied to eleventy-three colleges last year, she received some “aid” offers in the form of unsubsidized loans. If my daughter has to pay back more than she gets, particularly if she is still paying it back when she’s in her thirties and beyond, that’s not aid. That’s a cast-iron yoke around her future.

Any school that advises, encourages or otherwise eases the way for students to assume loan debt is doing a disservice to the student. Yet, thousands of students go deep in debt every year because they have been inculcated with the notion it’s unavoidable.***

Six bits of disclosure your college admissions counselors should share with prospective students:

  1. No correlation exists between the size of the tuition and the quality of the education or the ability to get a good job after graduation.
  2. College rankings are a joke, often based on loosey-goosey criteria that, again, have little if any connection to learning and job prospects.
  3. Choose a college for reasons other than rankings. For example, a particular academic program, the campus atmosphere, college town vs. city, region of the country, enrollment size, furriness of the mascot, etc.
  4. Choose a college that will challenge you, even if it’s ranked 256th among southwest northern regional universities with at least six letters in their name.
  5. Go to college for the right reasons. Unlike previous generations, a four-year degree doesn’t guarantee a long career or even a job.
  6. If you will assume huge loans to attend here, pick somewhere less expensive.

That is all. Have a good summer.






*I would still be a fool to pay $52 thousand for a car, but I would also be a fool to pay $52 thousand for a year of college.

** “The New York Times? Rolling Stone? And now Al-Jazeera? What’s next? The Communist Manifesto?”

***I have a cheap state university education, yet I can still wield words like “inculcate.” Amazing.


In defense of ignorance

26 Oct

I’m taking my younger daughter to my alma mater for homecoming this weekend.

I have an aerial view of the motel where we’ll stay. I know if I drive the speed limit, we’ll arrive there six hours and five minutes from the time we leave home. I know the structure is less than five years old. I’ve read guest reviews that say it’s a decent play to stay.

I also know that it’s wiser to buy our football tickets at the stadium, from a scalper, than on StubHub. I know this because the opponent is week, and that their fans don’t travel well.

I’ve packed warm clothes because I know the game time temperature will be a sunny forty degrees.

I Google, therefore I am.

I sometimes miss those days when I didn’t know much. When I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

I remember the second time I came to campus, for freshman orientation. In particular, I recall a boy who was book-ended by two cute girls as they ambled from one campus building to the next. The trio had the confidence of upperclassmen. They kept slightly separated from the rest of us during our campus tour, barely paying attention to our orientation leader. I overheard them say they had gone to the same large high school in St. Louis, and they seemed so comfortable in their new home for the next four years.

I was Mr. Recent North Podunk High School graduate. I wasn’t sure I could find my way back to my car, let alone the appropriate classroom buildings again. The St. Louis Three must have read the pamphlet  How to Act Like You Own the Place Your First Day on Campus. My copy got lost in the mail. I was an ignorant kid from the sticks.  Eighteen years old with an IQ to match. That was a blessing. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

I occasionally miss that state of mind. If we don’t know something, we can find the answer quickly.

My older daughter is applying to colleges. The process has been relatively sane so far, but I know there are some kids, with parents coptering over them, who have three-inch thick dossiers on all the best colleges in the Northern Hemisphere, as well as appendices on the deodorant and toothpaste preferences of each university president. There can be no surprises, nothing left to chance.

For my freshman orientation, I packed a few clothes in the little vinyl suitcase I’d gotten as a graduation gift and made the 3 ½ hour drive to campus, alone. It became immediately clear that everyone else at orientation had come with their BFFs. Many parents were hovering around, too. It hadn’t occurred to me that I should bring a posse. I didn’t know what I didn’t  know.

Those three kids from St. Louis particularly were bugging me. Because they were pre-journalism students like me, I saw them often as we acclimated to campus those two days. They were relaxed and seemed sure of themselves, as though coming to college was as easy as going out for a Big Mac. I still had clover seed stuck in my hair.

One of my first college friends attended a huge high school in one of the most affluent areas of the state. His senior class was bigger than my home town. He knew how to appropriately use big words that I didn’t yet know existed. He was trying to get into Journalism School, too. A semester and a half later, he flunked out. I, unencumbered by informed self-doubt, moved ahead.

I still think occasionally about those three confident kids from orientation. It was a big campus, making it easy to go four years without bumping into them. However, I saw the boy a few months into our freshman year. He looked like a deer caught in headlights. I never saw him again. I occasionally saw one of the girls he had been with. She asked me out on a date our senior year.