Where to go to college

Been meaning to get to this for a while…

First, there was a really nice piece in Vox a while back about graduating from college with almost no debt.  Plenty of really good points, but I thought this was the most important:

But I only applied to one college — the University of North Texas, which is not even ranked by the US News and World Report. It was a nearby state university with low tuition costs, and it meant I didn’t have to deal with relocating. My family was fine with the decision. Honestly, attending any university impressed my mom.

Would I have received a substantially better education at a more prestigious university? I doubt it. The truth is that university professors are hired because of their research, not their teaching. Attending a more prestigious university would have meant being taught by professors who had better publication records, but that does not necessarily translate into being better teachers. In fact, in some ways you expect the opposite — the more invested professors are in research, the less time they have for mentoring and teaching. [emphasis mine]

The best argument for attending a prestigious university is name recognition and alumni connections. If you plan to apply to work at a Fortune 500 company, those things matter a lot. But for students like me who just want to enter a middle-class profession, those benefits aren’t very important. While there are other merits to attending prestigious colleges — like having more dedicated students around you, better libraries, etc. — for me, they weren’t tangible enough to justify paying for higher tuition costs.

For example, I think at NC State we do a great job by our undergraduates.  Meanwhile, not far away, you can get a substantially more prestigious Political Science degree from UNC (where they have a top 20 PhD program) from a bunch of faculty who are nationally-renowned in their fields.  Of course, they did not get renowned for spending time with undergaduates and they have a bunch of really smart grad students who are demanding of their time.  So, the UNC degree is more prestigious.  And that may lead to certain benefits, but there’s really little reason to think there’s actually a better education that will have a broad pay-off.  If your career goal is a job where the prestige of your undergrad institution is important, then by all means, this is something to consider.  But for most college grads, the prestige of their undergrad degree (and alumni network, etc.) will have little bearing on where they end up.

Honestly, the biggest downside from my perspective?  Those peer students at UNC really are better than the ones at NCSU (and the ones at Duke are better than the ones at UNC) and the quality of your classmates does matter for the quality of your education.

Also, while I’m at it, Kevin Carey’s latest from among his overly-negative pronouncements on the traditional university (though, I really enjoyed this column) also makes some similar points:

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The bible of academic research on how colleges affect students is a book titled, plainly enough, “How College Affects Students.” It’s an 848-page synthesis of many thousands of independent research studies over the decades. The latest edition was published in 2005 by Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini, professors at the University of Iowa and Penn State.

The sections devoted to how colleges differ from one another are notable for how little they find. As Mr. Pascarella and Mr. Terenzini carefully document, studies have found that some colleges are indeed better than others in certain ways. Students tend to learn more in colleges where they have closer relationships with faculty and peers, for example, and earn a little more after graduating from more selective institutions.

But these findings are overwhelmed in both size and degree by the many instances in which researchers trying to detect differences between colleges found nothing.

“The great majority of postsecondary institutions appear to have surprisingly similar net impacts on student growth,” the authors write. “If there is one thing that characterizes the research on between-college effects on the acquisition of subject matter knowledge and academic skills, it is that in the most internally valid studies, even the statistically significant effects tend to be quite small and often trivial in magnitude.”

So, what does this all mean?  Unless you are hoping for a job on Wall Street or something like that, just got to a reasonably good college that is affordable for you.  And consider things besides academics reputation (because that doesn’t really matter all that much).  Those families who obsess over how prestigious a college their kids can get into (especially without concern to cost) are really do themselves no favors.

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