Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Can a whole bunch of debt get you a better education?

For the past couple of years at City I have taught a section of the First Year Seminar required of all entering students. I enjoy teaching it because it gives me a chance to get to know my students well (the classes are smaller) and to help them adjust to college life. I have noticed that the profile of the entering students has started to shift towards students who are admitted to more selective private schools, but opt for City because they are unwilling to go into debt. When some of those students go to my webpage and find out that I attended a selective private college and taught for a few years at an elite liberal arts college, they come into my office to ask me, in essence, whether they made the right choice. These students are usually some of the better prepared students and they worry that they’re missing out on a better education elsewhere.

I try to give them an honest picture. I tell them that what they’re not getting at City has to do mostly with resources and support systems. Fancier private institutions have nicer facilities, less bureaucracy, counselors and other administrators whose job is to help students get through college, and more money available for talks, events, etc. I also tell them that at least at some of those schools, classes are smaller and students are able to develop relationships with their professors.  Of course, these factors impact their education, but the question is how much? The classes I teach at City are not substantially different than those I taught at an elite SLAC. It is true that because some of the students are not as well-prepared, I have to often go over very basic elements of how to write a paper, develop an argument, and so forth. But in my experience going over the basics helps all students.
When I reflect on my own experience, I definitely took my share of forgettable large lecture courses while I was in college and experienced my share of uninspired teaching. However, I was fortunate enough to be able to work on a senior thesis and two junior independent projects with excellent philosophers and that no doubt played a role in my choice of profession. But with some effort, it seems to me that talented students at large public universities can find this kind of mentorship as well.

What else are students who opt not to attend a selective private institutions missing out on?  Would you advise a student to consider transferring to a more selective private institution if they have the option?


  1. Jennifer,

    I definitely encourage students to go to the most selective institution, private or public, that they can. One reason: Strong peer effects. Lot of research supports the conclusion that student academic achievement is shaped by other students and their habits, expectations, etc. I think we often underestimate the power of positive peer pressure. The second reason: In many cases, students do not have to take on more debt to attend more elite institutions. More generous need-based aid means lower actual costs to students. (I went to an elite private college effectively for free.) And while I'm not sure that Harvard is actually less expensive than Cal State (http://www.mercurynews.com/breaking-news/ci_20101265), they're not that far apart for many applicants. And indeed, there's something upsetting about the phenomenon of college mismatch: Many talented students, especially minorities, end up selling themselves short. (http://chronicle.com/article/Researchers-Explore-Factors/141095/)

  2. Michael,

    I agree that it is perhaps the best option for those students with enough credentials to make it to a school that won't force them to take out debt, but that is not the case for many selective schools. I have a number of students who were admitted to NYU and would have had to take on significant debt to attend. They attend City for free and live with their parents. The vast majority of students are not choosing between the ivies and City, but between schools where they will incur debt and a free education at City. Furthermore, I"m not sure that the peer effects can't be had at state schools if enough talented students are choosing to attend them for financial reasons. That is what actually happened to City College in the earlier part of the century. If the trend is heading that way, then I think that would be a welcome trend. Students also learn a lot from being around peers who are not the kind of students who attend elite schools.

  3. Is employment type and status a proxy for 'good education'? E.g., it at least seems like certain kinds of professions, or levels of those professions, are more accessible (and sometimes nearly only accessible) to people who have gone to elite colleges and universities. But, obviously, not everyone who goes to an elite school will wind up in an elite career and, of course, some who go to not elite schools are able to have elite careers. And of course, not everyone wants an 'elite' career anyway.

    Any information here would be much appreciated, especially by people who have children who will likely eventually go to college!

  4. I think think most highly capable students at state schools would get a better education at a more selective school. I don't know whether it's worth the price tag.

    I agree with Michael about the importance of peer effects. I also agree that it's possible to receive some of the benefits of peer effects at "non-elite" schools. Even in the average state school, students can probably do so by actively seeking out bright, motivated peers. Perhaps part of your response to these students should be, "Find other bright, motivated students. Become friends with them. Take classes with them."

    I think there is another advantage to more selective schools, though: I suspect that, despite your experience, courses at elite schools will be more rigorous, covering more content in more depth. You say that your courses are not much different than they were at a SLAC. That may not be generalizable to other schools or other disciplines. When I taught in the CUNY system (at Hunter), my courses were not much different than they would have been at a more competitive school. But in my current state school, I've found myself making the intro-level courses much less rigorous in a particular way: I spend much more time focusing on very basic reasoning skills and very slow exposition of arguments. This limits the amount of material that I can cover, but I've found that many of my students here simply lack the necessary preparation in basic critical thinking skills; covering the material more quickly or in more depth would be wasting their time. The trade-off is that the more capable students don't get as much out of the course as I would like. This trade-off troubles me deeply, but I believe I would be doing a disservice to most of my students if I taught these courses as I would at a more selective school. Perhaps I'm wrong about that.

    I suspect that this difference is much more pronounced in the natural and social sciences. I teach some economics courses here. These courses are much less rigorous and less comprehensive than they would be at a more selective school because many students lack the necessary mathematical preparation. Furthermore, the economics majors in upper-level econ courses haven't learned as much as they would have learned at other schools, since their previous courses moved more slowly to accommodate the more mathematically challenged students. The upper-level classes therefore start from a "lower" baseline of knowledge and skills. Thus, even if the course moved as quickly as it would at a selective school, it will not cover as much.


If you wish to use your name and don't have a blogger profile, please mark Name/URL in the list below. You can of course opt for Anonymous, but please keep in mind that multiple anonymous comments on a post are difficult to follow. Thanks!