10 Reasons to Skip the Expensive Colleges

10 Reasons to Skip the Expensive Colleges© Hemera/Thinkstock

If you’re the parent of a high-achieving high school student prepared to spend whatever it takes to send your kid to an Ivy League college, authors Claudia Dreifus and Andrew Hacker have some unlikely advice: Don’t do it.

Dreifus, a New York Times writer and an adjunct professor at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs, and Hacker, a veteran political science professor at Queens College in New York, spent three years interviewing faculty, students, and administrators and crunching statistics for their book, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids — And What We Can Do About It. Their finding? That many of America’s colleges and universities — especially the elite — aren’t worth their tuition and serve faculty over their undergrads.

More outrageous, they say, is that tuition nationwide has jumped at more than twice the rate of inflation since 1982, so many kids graduate deeply in debt. “Tuition is probably the second-largest item you’ll buy in your lifetime, after your home,” Dreifus says. Given that, the authors suggest you consider the following as you bear down on the decision of where your child will spend the next four (or more) years.

1. Beginning adulthood without debt is worth far more than a designer diploma.

The authors’ No. 1 rule for parents: Don’t let your child go into debt for college. In 2010, almost two thirds of undergraduates borrowed money, and student-loan debt outpaced credit card debt for the first time. The College Board likes to say that a typical senior graduates with “only” $24,000 in debt, but with interest, collection charges, and penalties for postponed payments, the amounts owed can exceed $100,000. If you ever default on a federal student loan (and the rate of defaults is rising), you’ll be hounded for life. Lenders can garnish your wages, intercept your tax refunds, and have your professional license revoked. You can’t work for the government or collect your social security. “People have been sold this propaganda: ‘The rates are so low; just get a loan,’ ” Dreifus says. “The long-term effect is to cripple your children.”

2. Research universities are no place for undergraduates.

Professors at big research universities are often more interested in doing research and working with graduate students than teaching your child because their prestige (and their university’s) depends on publishing. So they tend to host huge lectures and then foist undergrads off on teaching assistants who may or may not be supervised. “At Harvard, we ran into students who said they never had a professor who had enough of a relationship with them to write a recommendation for grad school,” Dreifus says. How to avoid that? Go to a school that’s completely dedicated to teaching, like a four-year liberal arts college with little to no research. “Look for seminars where 15 to 20 people sit around a table,” Dreifus says. “The big question we want parents to ask: Is this a place that’s about developing my child’s mind?”

3. Colleges are overrun by administrators.

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Student-to-faculty ratios are important, of course. But it might also be wise to ask about the proportion of administrators to students. Between 1976 and 2007, that ratio has doubled at colleges nationwide, the authors say, with bureaucrats serving in such roles as “babysitting coordinator,” “dietetic internship director,” and “residential communications coordinator.” Such services may be useful, but are they really necessary? “You should ask yourself, Is this really a college, or is this a giant multiversity with a lot of extraneous functions? Because that’s going to end up costing you,” Hacker says. “It’s a big reason tuition can now run a quarter-million dollars for four years.”

4. The star professors touted in college brochures probably won’t be teaching your kid.

Universities and colleges are increasingly relying on underpaid, part-time instructors to lead undergraduate courses. Contingent teachers, including paid-by-the-course adjunct professors, now do 70 percent of college teaching, up from 43 percent in 1975. (The elites aren’t immune: At Yale, the figure is 70 percent.) Most adjuncts don’t even have an office on campus, and because they make on average only about $3,000 a course, they often teach at three or four different colleges. “It’s hard to be a great teacher and to be there for your students when you’re juggling that many jobs,” Dreifus says.

5. The college’s best professors may not even be on campus.

Though they get their summers off and breaks during the school year, tenured faculty at many universities are encouraged to take frequent sabbaticals. What will that mean for your undergrad? At Harvard, where senior professors get a sabbatical every three years, 10 of the 48 professors in the history department — more than one in five — were off doing research in 2010/2011. During a recent year at Williams College, another school with a great reputation, a third of the professors in the religion department were on leave. If you choose a school that gives its faculty a lot of time for research, your son or daughter might find that his or her senior-thesis adviser is on sabbatical in Tuscany.

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36 thoughts on “10 Reasons to Skip the Expensive Colleges

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  2. I have to say that some of these so-called research techniques used to come up with these conclusions are shoddy at best. For instance, “To prove this point, Hacker and Dreifus tracked the 900-odd students who graduated from Princeton in 1973…. ‘We were very disappointed,’ Hacker says. ‘There were only a handful of recognized names in that class of 900.'” Is that seriously the criterion… “recognized names?!”

  3. I went to Cornell because they gave me a better financial aid package than Penn State did – my tuition at Cornell was covered entirely by grants and I only paid room and board. Afterwards, I got my MBA and paid off all my loans within 3 years. The ivies give aid based on need, not merit. According to this author, I guess I should have shelled out more money to go to a state school than an Ivy? My life would be sooooooo much better if I did, right?

    1. You got lucky. Most of us don’t get full ride scholarships to an Ivy school. Heck most of us don’t get a scholarship to any school. I guess Cornell doesn’t base the tuition on merit – but you have be be pretty darn bright, and dedicated, to get into that school.

      Maybe since you got such a good deal, you can show some empathy for the 99% of the rest of us who are not “Ivy league material.”

  4. What page of reader’s digest is this article on? I need to know for mla citation please!

  5. In my opinion, if you have a daughter or son that is decent looking and has common sense…it doesnt matter whether or not you put them in an expensive school because at the end of the day, if you go to school for something that is a decent job….it can pay off…So you mean to tell me if your kid becomes a doctor or a law clerk , that in a few years down the line they cant pay it off? thats non sense …the problem with todays society is people enroll their children in school for jobs that are not in demand and then they get angry that their children spend their whole lives paying off their debt …WAKE UP  

    1. CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP.Most people who go to college think that if you have a degree your going to get a job.When in reality there are no job demands for your course.If you study liberal arts or history or something random.Of course your not going to get a job.PICK MAJORS AND STUDIES THAT MATTER AND HAVE JOB OPENING .(RULE OF THUMB WHEN YOUR SELECT YOUR MAJOR).And avoid community colleges at all .They are nothing but time wasters.

  6.  Why is everyone in this country solely focused on college as an acceptable thing for a young person?  Plenty of young people aren’t necessarily interested in academics.  Four years of partying is hardly a valid reason to attend college!  Most European countries offer technical school training followed by apprenticeship, and the ability to become a “Master” of their craft.  Here, we tend to look down on anyone who works with their hands (this is not to say these folks don’t also work with their minds).  Why should anyone be made to feel like “less” because they don’t have a BS or a BA?  Our president seems to think everyone should go to college.  This article does a good job of outlining the downside of college that everyone wants to ignore.

    1. I think it has to do with indoctrination. You get 4 more years of teaching kids to be politically correct rather than let them learn about the real world.

      What I think we need to do is stop focusing on college and put the focus back into the trade schools. Even my job as a software engineer, could probably be taught as well in two years in a trade school for software engineering rather than have to go to an expensive college.

      Other fields – so many kids get business degrees just so they can start out selling clothes at Macy’s. Isn’t that overkill. Some rationality has to be put back into the system.

      That said, High schools used to focus on teaching rather than baby sitting and social agendas, so folks graduating in the 1950’s and 60’s actually knew something. If I saw a kid today in California with an A average and a High school diploma, I would be hesitant if the kid could really read or write, – hence the college. You might not get anything out of the sociology degree, but at least the employer knows you can read a bit, write a bit, and do a bit of math.

      So maybe we should knock out most of high school also and start these trade schools when the kids are 14 and 15 and reserve college for those wanting to be Doctors and physicists.

  7. i know that stanford offers free tuition if one’s parent(s) make less that 60.000$ or 40.000$

    1. That is nice, but again we have the “Ivy league Problem” As in Ivy league schools, to get into Stanford, you need to be one of the top 1% of students.

      What about the 99% of the rest of us who can only get into decent schools?

  8. I’m writing this as a professor, who gets the brunt of the negative comments when tuition goes up and NOT the bulk of the raises. We like to increase admin costs and salaries, while at the same time making the place a plush environment for coddled students. I used to argue that dorms, for example, stunk as a motivator to graduate and get on with your life, but the students going through now are SO dependent. It’s scary. Also we spend money on new research facilities and buildings. If you are an outstanding educator/professor, you are usually content to have a job and rarely push it with seeking a pay raise. I guess, my reward is interaction with the students who seek to learn and want to be there rather than those who themselves fell are “buying a degree”.
    Oh, and hiring people from china is the biggest single complaint from students. You can make that fact a racial slur if it helps you get through, but the research driven, communication ally impaired Asian hires will bankrupt higher Ed before the other complaints as they shield high priced Chinese faculty from teaching. Which means they get paid to not interact with students. Sorry for the rant, but a lot of faculty are just as angry.

  9. I’m writing this as a professor, who gets the brunt of the negative comments when tuition goes up and NOT the bulk of the raises. We like to increase admin costs and salaries, while at the same time making the place a plush environment for coddled students. I used to argue that dorms, for example, stunk as a motivator to graduate and get on with your life, but the students going through now are SO dependent. It’s scary. Also we spend money on new research facilities and buildings. If you are an outstanding educator/professor, you are usually content to have a job and rarely push it with seeking a pay raise. I guess, my reward is interaction with the students who seek to learn and want to be there rather than those who themselves fell are “buying a degree”.
    Oh, and hiring people from china is the biggest single complaint from students. You can make that fact a racial slur if it helps you get through, but the research driven, communication ally impaired Asian hires will bankrupt higher Ed before the other complaints as they shield high priced Chinese faculty from teaching. Which means they get paid to not interact with students. Sorry for the rant, but a lot of faculty are just as angry.

    1. Are you at a private or public school? Tenured?

      Where I went to college, a private university, there were several Star profs, who brought in tons of money. The biggest star in my department was well known and widely regarded, had 1/4 floor to himself, got paid well, but was old he could barely teach, and when he did, frequently fell asleep during lectures, and student presentations. Others like say Michael Mann have made millions off of the educational system – in his case with very shaky research.

      I guess the point point is bringing in the grants is how Profs are evaluated and rewarded at some of these prestige schools. You might be doing a fantastic job teaching, but the powers in academia don’t care about teaching so much.

  10. I agree entirely with the author.  I went to a large state research university, it was the worst decision of my life for all the reasons mentioned by the author.  Later I got a MA at the same university which was a better experience.  I would add one for caution.  Don’t go to a university with a football team.

    1. This is true, I am going to Auburn University right now, and all they care about is football. They will literally make you park a mile from campus on the day BEFORE a football game. In my science technology classes, we use spectrometers that are from the 1980’s, but MAN that stadium! WHOOO hOOO.

  11. Keep in mind that adjunct instructors, like myself, often have PhDs, but are only making $2K-$3K per course. This means we tend to teach 4-8 sections, driving between various colleges, detracting from the time we can dedicate to individual students. Just food for thought…

  12. This list is pretty useless. So there’s a lot of waste going on in colleges. Okay, so what should people look for when they choose schools? It’s not like you can get information on how much students learn at individual schools.

  13. I agree, the worst thing I ever did was go to the University of Notre Dame.  I transferred from another 2 year school with a  3.8 GPA.  I graudated from ND with a 2.5 GPA and all employees wanted to know was my GPA, not where I graduated from.  Waste of $50,000.

    1. 2.5 GPA, what’d you expect?     Had you maintained your 3.8, your NotreDame 3.8 would be worth more than your Community College 3.8.

  14. At 42, I can attest to every thing in the first point the author makes. 

    Even if you get that job because you went to Williams, if the bulk of what you are bringing home is going back out the door each month for student loans, are you really getting ahead in life?  Now here is the part that some parents may not see. I had 30,000 in student loans. I probably paid 50,000 when all was said and done. All while trying to start a career.  When I hear about 70, 80, 100,000 in student loan debt, I feel sad. I feel sad because I have been down the road that the 20 something and the 40-50 something parent has not.  They will learn!

  15. I just posted a reply/comment regarding this article, but in the event that it is not approved (since it had links in it), here is a version *without* any links to websites –so that, if by some means, at least one version of my comment would make it to your ‘Tips’ section here:(Commentary: Yes, this is a long letter, but your writer, Michelle Crouch, really screwed things up, big-time, major-league, by missing the point. So, I hope you will make a “part 2” article to fix what she messed up & missed by omission. Education is the backbone of America, and you see, we’ve got a ‘broken back.’ Word! – The screw-up is so bad & makes me so mad, I’ll cc a few of your peeps. See the cc line. OK, letter below…)Your article, ’10 things every parent should know about college,’ did a good job of explaining the *symptom* of the problem, namely that college costs have skyrocketed at a rate MUCH faster than inflation. You even name a few ‘immediate’ causes (such as too many administrators, million-dollar salaries, and non-essentials, such as “high-powered” athletic programs, Jacuzzis, & private suites), however you did NOT explain the actual underlying cause of these money-drainers, so there was no way you could propose a solution. Can I help out?In the 1950’s when U.S. Higher Education was the best in the world, and tuition was low relative to the American paycheck, a semester of education cost about 100-200 dollars (about one or two thousand “2011” dollars), and students needed only work a part-time job over the summer (or in the college cafeteria) to pay for the whole year of college, so what did things change so drastically that students are in debt for life due to college debt?First, so-called ‘liberal’ lawmakers passed laws offering students Federal loans, e.g., “student aid,” but every time Congress raises the limits of what students may borrow, colleges/universities mysteriously raise tuition to match, and this is NOT due to “increased” quality of education: American colleges continue to fall farther behind other nations in math, sciences, and standardised tests. (Economists will recognise this influx of loans/grants/etc. as as ‘bidding up’ the costs, by distortion of the Free Market, resulting in higher tuition –which also costs tax dollars to do so.)Then, so-called ‘conservative’ Federal lawmakers, under the Bush administration, passed the Bankruptcy Reform Act of 1994 (P.L. 103-394, enacted October 22, 1994), which amended the FFELP (Federal Family Education Loan Program), thereby removing standard consumer protections (truth in lending, bankruptcy proceedings, statutes of limitations, etc.) from Student Loans. (Perspective: Credit card loans have ‘standard consumer protections.’) Student loans, which are the only loans that do NOT have these standard protections, send a signal to bankers and universities that the student is defenseless and may be financially raped, when already-high college loans compound interest, thereby tripling or quadrupling the original loan amount. Then, a person’s paycheck, or even disability check, may be garnished to pay on student loans –until the person’s natural death.)Since “College Debt” has, for the first time in America’s history, surpassed “Credit Card Debt,” and students are now beginning to commit suicide in alarmingly high numbers due to student loan default (remember: bankruptcy is not permitted), this should be a signal that the problem must be understood first to have a chance of being addressed.Therefore, now that I’ve explained the underlying causes of the problems, I’m able to now recommend a specific solution: Follow the model McDonald’s and Wal-Mart use. First, stop providing (or guaranteeing) Federal loans for education, and then return standard consumer protections to student loans. This ‘Free Market’ model CURRENTLY works for McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, etc.: Customers at THESE places DON’T have Federal Loans to bid up the costs of products/services, and when they DO use credit cards, they have standard consumer protections, which send the signal to loan holders: DON’T victimize us. But, can we really com,pare higher ed to fast food…? ANSWER:This model worked in the 1950’s for U.S. Higher Education, and it would work again –if The Reader’s Digest leaned on lawmakers to return to the “way that worked.”For documentation of these claims, please do research on this at the links I posted in my prior response.Gordon Wayne WattsBS, The Florida State University, Biological & Chemical Sciences: double major with honoursAS, United Electronics Institute, Valedictorian

  16. …and is the quality of education really superior at a college where the professors never take research sabbaticals? I think I’d prefer to learn from someone who gets out in the field and keeps abreast of developments rather than one who has been teaching the same material in the same classroom year after year after year.

    1. What if you were on a wait list to take an important class for your major with a specific prof who had a fantastic reputation. This prof was so good that everyone wanted to take his class, and you finally got into that class after being on that wait list for four years? Two weeks before classes begin, you learn that the prof just got a grant to study (fill in the blank) and is no longer available to teach the class. That happened to me twice and I was lucky compared to how many times many of my acquaintances experienced that scenario. It was very frustrating; I also did not receive any type of refund which I felt I was entitled to as the TA did not have any type of teaching experience, degree, let alone a degree in the field they were teaching! I paid full freight for a certain prof for a certain class and ended up getting very little for my investment. Phooey.

  17. You spoke of Williams and other elite private schools. The reason these  schools are held in such HIGH esteem is they produce JOBS after graduation. All the big corporations come to these schools to recruit kids that are graduating. Very few kids graduate and don’t have a job. The Ivy’s and the Little Ivy’s or NESCAC schools are a good value when you graduate with a great job waiting for you!

  18. Having two sons in collge and a daughter in her senior year, I have a different view.  The boys are attending a large mega state university in Texas , this looked like a great oppourtnity to me, as I  attended very small schools (one private, one public)  in NY, my wiofe atteneded a mid-size public school in Ohio.    I am disappointed in the quality of education my sons are getting.  The classes are too large, the kids are just a number, and there are too many distractions.  My daughter will (hopefully)  be attending a mid-size private university in Texas.  I feel very good about her decision.   A majority of the classes will have less than 20 students, attendance is mandadtory,  and it feels like a small Northeastern college (with Texas values!).    The small schools with good reputations are the way top go.  The lifestyle my wife and I enjoy could not be acheived with our our education, there is no doubt about it.  Best investment we made, even though we had significant bills whe we graduated. 

  19. As a parent with one child at the state university and one child at Harvard, I can tell you that we pay much more to the State U. The author fails to mention that the financial aid at colleges like Harvard, Stanford and Princeton is incredible. The stated mission at these schools is that finances should never be a deterrent from enrolling and indeed, they do a terrific job of meeting need with grants, not loans. The grants are even awarded to middle – upper middle class families, the ones that typically are in the “donut hole’ of college financing.

    In short, if your child is fortunate enough to be accepted at Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Stanford – you will likely have a far better financial aid package than at your flagship State U.

    1. That’s only true if your family income is below a certain amount. I don’t receive any financial aid from Cornell at all. Yes, my parents make a lot of money, but they have five other children that they want to put through school without taking out loans. The state schools are much cheaper, obviously, if you don’t qualify for aid. My siblings also received merit-based scholarships at their state schools, whereas Ivies don’t offer those.

  20. It is important to separate the students from those looking for a four year liberal arts degree and those willing to study for a professional degree in a field where there really are jobs.  I majored in English 30 years ago and it was a good idea back then to get a liberal arts degree.  Not anymore.  Anyone spending $40,000 – $50,000 for a student to study English or History nowadays is just not facing reality.  I told my children they had to study something that will give them job offers when they graduate.  I have one studying Pharmacy at $25,000 per year and another heading for a teaching degree at $4,000 a year at our local state school.  You just can not generalize on what to pay for tuition until you take a look at the employment rate for graduates from the school. 

  21. I have had to empty my retirement 401K to get my 2 children through private college. One took 5 1/4 years to get through and the other 6 years and still has no degree as the college claimed he had incompletes. I had communicated to this college throughout the 6th yr demanding I know that the end would be at the end of that year. They did not care about my kids, in fact at graduation they would not tell him he was graduating til the day before. Even so 15 family members came to cheer him on, only for him to find out that their ceremony consisted of faculty asked by the student to speak for under 2 min on their behalf. Because he was told he wasnt graduating then they decided he was – he went over and asked who of the teachers he had emailed in was speaking for him- they turned and said NO ONE COULD SPEAK FOR HIM AS THEY HAD NOTHING TO SAY!!!!!!!!  This is after $250,000 of payment to them> There were many students whose moms, brothers spoke uncomfortably about them-obviously the same had gone for them. The college awarded 4 faculty for the 50 graduating seniors. Yes 50 graduates in this school within the university – they had my son for 6 years and NOTHING to say about him. What a joke. My $250,000 daughters architecture degree has produced no jobs so she works afor minimum wage at Macys my newly graduated son no job yet.

    HIPAA has done parents who are paying for college a huge disservice as colleges are hiding behind this saying they cannot tell us anything- credits earned , grades. 

    College is a joke compared to when I went to school

    1. Actually the joke is probably on you. Not trying to be disrespectful but at $250k your kid was probably screwing off because he/she had no skin in the game. If something is obtained freely or cheaply the value tends to get lost. You probably worked your way through college or at least got out withmore than a piece of paper. Today more than half of all graduates are educated idiots, because they studied for a test only to forget when the test was over. Most do not keep books or even their class notes. So it truly is studying to do a test, pass and repeat. When these people get out in the real world they are lost because the real world expects value for their buck.

      1. Joe this is so true. I’m an engineering major and have found that many people in my classes(some with excellent GPA’s) cannot even do a relatively easy problem from a course they took the previous semester. I really don’t understand how someone who studied and did so many problems doesn’t retain anything. It’s crazy to think that come graduation they will be just as science-minded as a business major!

  22. First two years, community college. Finish Bachelors at 4 year school or state college/university. Then shop for the best advisor for grad degrees.

  23. College was use to be the only place for career training for young people. But people have a lot more different opportunities and channels to work for jobs they like. Think of how many successful professionals and business owner who don’t have college diploma these days. Ivy league colleges have become more business oriented rather than education oriented. All they want are money and reputation to maintain their operation.

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