The Immorality of College Tuition

2013-11-14 True Merit

For a conservative, I spend an awful lot of time thinking about bleeding heart issues. One that has been bugging me for a long time is the idea of class. I’m having a hard time putting this into words, but it goes something like this: the real advantage to going to Harvard (or similar) is not the increased education. That’s a minor advantage, if any, over a good state school. No, the real advantage is the unwarranted deference people give you because you attended an “elite” school. I don’t like it because it smacks of anti-meritocratic privilege.

But it was just a sort of un-formed hunch until I read this article explaining the extent to which college admission is driven pretty much exclusively by money. If you have money: you get admitted into the elite club. If you don’t: too bad.

The basic gist of the article is that a combination of exorbitantly high tuition and reliance on absurdly expensive preparation (e.g. private school and SAT tutors) conspire to make elite institutions only available to the ultra-rich. And the facts bear out the theory:

Only 3.8 percent of American families make more than $200,000 per year. But at Harvard University, 45.6 percent of incoming freshman come from families making $200,000 or more. A mere 4 percent of Harvard students come from a family in the bottom quintile of US incomes, and only 17.8 percent come from the bottom three quintiles.

The conclusion?

A higher education system that once promoted social mobility now serves to solidify class barriers. Desperate parents compromise their principles in order to spare their children rejection. But it is the system itself that must be rejected. True merit cannot be bought – and admission should not be either.

This isn’t a complete explanation of everything I find wrong with class in America, but it’s an important glimpse. I feel like we’re losing sight of the things that made this country great in the past, and meritocracy and social mobility are two big ones.

5 thoughts on “The Immorality of College Tuition”

  1. I have a friend who works in marketing and admissions at an independent firm. She manages accounts for all types of colleges and universities across the country. Her behind-the-scenes experience is eye opening. Yes, it is about numbers and money. She can give some fabulous advice on how to improve your odds of admission based solely on seemingly trivial things. I plan on speaking to her more about it in the near future.

    She also reads college admission essays. We not only have class/money issues in America, but we have a serious problem with the quality of K-12 education in this country. She showed my sister one of the “better” college admission essays she received recently, and the student did not have any punctuation. Most “sentences” had grammatical errors. That was one of the better ones. Keep in mind that she reads college essays for top-notch schools like William and Mary.

    My sister proofread some papers at Virginia Tech, and students could not form complete sentences. I noticed similar problems with geology students, but I assumed this was more of a science major problem. It isn’t. I wonder if the Ivy League kids are doing better? I am guessing that they are, and I suspect that expensive K-12 education actually matters. While I am sure there are pockets of excellent public schools, we need to find a better way to educate the rest of our children before we can hope to loosen the class constraints. It seems that the education prior to college makes a bigger difference than the actual college. Our current system as a whole clearly is not working.

  2. *My kids are currently getting one of those expensive K-12 educations, but it costs half of the public school per-pupil budget. It seems that the solution is out there somewhere.

  3. I have a friend who works in marketing and admissions at an independent firm. She manages accounts for all types of colleges and universities across the country. Her behind-the-scenes experience is eye opening. Yes, it is about numbers and money. She can give some fabulous advice on how to improve your odds of admission based solely on seemingly trivial things. I plan on speaking to her more about it in the near future.

    Care to share what you find out? You could write a guest post here, if you’d like. I’m definitely interested.

    My kids are currently getting one of those expensive K-12 educations

    Our kids have been in Montessori so far, but we can’t keep up with the tuition. But instead of just moving straight into public school, we researched around for the best public school in the area and then got a rental in that district.

    To be honest… I feel a little bit ambivalent about this. One of the way class systems emerge and perpetuate (maybe the way) is by parents who have the means (money but more importantly information) investing substantially to give their kids every possible advantage. This creates a virtuous cycle where upper class families breed upper class kids while lower class families (again, primarily from lack of information rather than money) miss out.

    New York Magazine had an article about this called Is Ethical Parenting Possible?”, but I felt it was very poorly done. It emphasized parents who were actually cheating by doing their kids homework or sabotaging other kids and blurred that in with paying for a tutor for your kids before they take the SAT. There’s no way I would ever help my kids cheat (or cheat on their behalf), so I felt that focusing on extreme examples actually really hurt the article. Because to me the tough ethical question is not “should I do Johnny’s homework for him?” That’s a dumb question and the answer is obvious. The tougher qusetion is “Should I let my kid take the SAT five times?” That seems benign, but the reality is that even a relatively minor thing like that is going to create a systemic bias towards families that have a stable environment and can do long-range planning for several SAT tests (not to mention parents who would even think to do it).

    FWIW – I took the SAT once, and I had forgotten about it until the day before. I also fell asleep in the test in every single section. I still did very well and got into the college I wanted to get into. But, looking back, I realize that with fairly minimal additional effort I probably could have gotten into an even more prestigious school and started a permanent upward trend in my earnings, social status, etc. Armed with that knowledge: what do I do for my kids? I consider it a corrupt system, but I also know that based on everything from race to IQ, my kids are poised to do quite well in it.

    But to what extent is exploiting our knowledge of the system tantamount to condoning the corruption?

    I really don’t know.

    My best guess: never take overt unfair advantage (no breaking laws or rules), and just be grateful for the luck and privilege we have and view it as a debt. Upper class Americans got lucky. They should work to make the country better for all Americas. Americans in general (at any level) got lucky relative to the world. They should work to make the world better for everyone. I think this ethos of service and humility is better in the long run than trying to forcibly level the playing field, but I can’t say I’m comfortable in that opinion.

  4. Sure! That would be great. Thanks for the opportunity. I am very curious to talk to her more, so I will definitely share.
    I think our society’s philosophy of education is off, and so my family is somewhat removed from the mainstream drama. I am frustrated with a lack of schools that meet my standards. While my kids do go to a private school and we may homeschool later, the goals are not about college, career, or earning potential. Don’t get me wrong — I want my kids to succeed in those areas. But I think education is about pursuing Truth (The Great Conversation) and arming yourself with knowledge, logic, and rhetoric to lead the holiest life possible. That holy life may be a poor one. I would be thrilled if one of my children joined the priesthood or a religious order, took vows of poverty, and committed their lives to serving others. While I don’t want my children to suffer, if they lived a life of material poverty (religious or not) and still lived a holy life of love and faith, I would call that a success. I am not blind to the fact that a classical education does significantly increase the odds that they will succeed financially, but that is a secondary bonus for me. I would also be proud if they attained an upper class life if they, again, strive to live a loving, charitable, faith-filled life.
    I know that sounds a little fluffy when people are concerned about feeding families, class mobility, and job acquisition, but I truly believe this education/focus is the best way to accomplish a better situation for everyone. Morality, virtue, love of learning, the ability to think and articulate…
    I couldn’t care less about all the testing parameters and core standards in education today. Our classical school isn’t accredited with the state, does not take government funding, and I specifically wanted it that way. I know that my kids will get a better education outside of the current educational system at this point. And yet we can’t completely escape the system either. We are still in the world. I absolutely do care about the effects of our mainstream education system on ordinary people, and so I am very interested in this topic.

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