6. Don’t be seduced by the luxuries they show you on the tour.
Today’s students get suites, private bathrooms, and food courts with chefs that make sushi and Dijon chicken, not to mention jumbo Jacuzzis and five-story climbing walls. It’s all part of an extravagant amenities race that’s helping to push up tuition rates. “When we sneaked in on parent/student tours across the country, we were shocked at the number of questions parents asked about amenities,” Dreifus says. “A college doesn’t have to look like Club Med. In fact, I’d say you should be suspicious if a school has a lot of amenities. When a college has every kind of plaything, that tells you something about its priorities.”
7. Your tuition may be subsidizing a college president’s $1 million-plus salary.
College presidents create a tone and a direction for an institution, so take a look at the person at the top. Does he look like an educator? Has he switched to a new college every few years? What’s his salary? A growing number of higher education leaders are making more than $1 million a year. “When a president is remunerated the same way as a CEO, that’s a sign that the school has embraced the corporate model of doing things,” says Dreifus. “This should be a public service. A university president should not make more than the president of the United States.”
8. High-powered athletic programs drain money from academics.
Only a handful of athletic departments actually pay for themselves. The rest rely on your tuition and fees to help pay for coaches, trainers, equipment, and travel and lodging expenses for the players. Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama has more football coaches (seven) than it has professors in its history department (four). “If you didn’t have football, you could hire more history professors,” Hacker says. The other problem is that once colleges get into big-time sports, corruption tends to follow. Even Princeton recently had an alumnus who paid tuition for a tennis player in violation of NCAA rules, Hacker says. (The student agreed to repay the money to charity.) He acknowledges that some teenagers love the excitement of painting their faces in team colors and cheering for the home team. “How can I argue with that?” he says. “Except to say that you should recognize the trade-off: It’s depleting the quality of your education.”
9. Going to an elite university does not guarantee success.
To prove this point, Hacker and Dreifus tracked the 900-odd students who graduated from Princeton in 1973 to see if the school was delivering on its promise “to prepare students for positions of leadership,” whether in business, public service, or the arts, which Princeton administrators claim as their goal. “We were very disappointed,” Hacker says. “There were only a handful of recognized names in that class of 900. What that tells us is simply this: In America, if you put your talents to their best use, by the age of 35 or 36, you’ll be passing people from Princeton, no matter where you went to school.” Sure, the authors acknowledge, a designer degree might help you get into medical school or law school at Harvard, Stanford, or Yale. That’s a nice bonus if you can pay the full sticker price, they say, but not enough of an edge to saddle your child with many thousands of dollars in debt.
10. Honors colleges at public universities can offer as fine an education as the Ivy League.
The honors colleges at City University of New York, Arizona State, and the University of Mississippi, to name a few, offer the intimacy of a liberal arts college at state-school prices. “These students get first pick of classes and have special classes to themselves, and at Arizona State, they have their own dorms,” Dreifus says. “We met students in those honors colleges who got into Harvard and other elite schools, but they said they didn’t want to burden their parents with that kind of expense. Now that’s a smart kid.”