College Myths: Why Go to the Fanciest Colleges?

The American Council on Education, a membership group made up of about 1,800 colleges and universities, recently published a thorough debunking of several myths about American colleges.

The myths included “increases in federal student aid drive increases in tuition,” “college sports are a cash cow,” and “faculty members are underworked and overpaid.” The debunking of one of the myths, “it’s only worth attending a ‘ranked’ college,” however, is a little questionable.

The piece was written by Jay Mathews, a columnist for the Washington Post. Matthews writes of his decision to transfer from Occidental College to Harvard, then, as now, a rather more prestigious institution. Matthews explains what happened to him:

I was captured by that mystique. If [Harvard] was famous, I thought, then it had to be great. That turned out to be untrue. I was disappointed when I arrived two months before the 1964 presidential election and found none of the lively political debates I had had at Oxy. The California college’s student body was closely divided between Democrats and Republicans. We had wonderfully loud arguments in the dorms late at night. At Harvard I had trouble finding any Republicans.

Then I discovered that the two-year Western civilization course I had begun at Occidental, the best class I ever had, did not exist at Harvard. The university’s faculty refused to organize a course like Oxy’s that combined politics, art, literature, and economics, believing that arrangement to be awkward and unsophisticated.

What saved Harvard for me was the student newspaper, The Crimson. I spent most of my time there and learned the trade I still practice 45 years later. Once I went to work at The Washington Post I learned I could have had the same experience at any state university with an enrollment large enough to support a daily paper.

Yea, but just try getting an entry level editorial job at the Post today armed only with a degree from Occidental. This is something he doesn’t really acknowledge.

Matthews is actually making a rather good point. The difference between a “great” and a merely good school is vague and exaggerated. Despite all admissions statistics about higher grades and SAT scores, one can receive a wonderful education almost anywhere in the country. The Ivy League is no golden ticket to a life of wealth and professional success. Matthews:

If you get into one lower on the list, but in sync with what you want to do with your life, send in your deposit. People who know you best will eventually judge your college on the basis of what they know about you, not the other way around.

That’s very charming, and serves as a nice antidote to some of the incredible snobbishness and melodrama that predominates in college admissions, but it’s not quite the whole picture. He’s forgetting about the vast increase in tuition in American universities since he attended college in the 1960s. That dramatically impacts how Americans think about higher education.

There’s a reason people want to go to the top ranked colleges and it’s not just because they’re pretentious or narrow minded. It’s not because they think they will become dramatically smarter there or they’ll automatically get vaulted into positions of leadership and major success. No, it’s because if it’s a really good college at least you don’t feel like you’re getting screwed.

Because Harvard might be one of America’s top schools, and Occidental might be a somewhat mid-tier one, but tuition at Harvard was $36,305 last year, and tuition at Occidental was about the same, $41,860.

Ultimately they’re both pretty good schools, but if you’re going to spend $40,000 to go to college, what’s a safer bet? Sure, graduates of prestigious schools are often employed by people who earned degrees from other, lesser, schools and their lives aren’t any easier. But at least their parents know they’re getting something pretty good for $40,000 a year.

Most American colleges are probably good enough at giving their students an education that is broadening and provides some sort of useful credentials for eventual employment, but are they also worth $40,000? Can you tell before you get there?

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer