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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