Thursday, May 03, 2007

Where do smart cheapskates go to college?

My daughter plans to apply to college next year and we've started our search with visits to Stanford, Scripps and Pomona and a good deal of research. One thing that struck me was how luxurious the elite colleges seem to be--a wide variety of good food, fancy architecture, security escorts home from the library at the touch of a button, very small classes, lots of hand holding, a general "cost is no object" style.

Part of the reason, presumably, is that students with very high SATs, grades, etc. disproportionately tend to be the children of well off parents. While college purports to be about education, a large part of its role in our society is as a place where people can spend four years enjoying themselves, searching for friends and mates, developing useful social contacts, and the like. If the children of well off parents are going to spend their time that way, they might as well do it in comfort. And for very smart applicants whose parents aren't well off, the schools have an extensive system of discriminatory pricing aka financial aid.

On the other hand, most of what these schools are spending money on seems to have a rather tenuous connection to the quality of education. That left me wondering whether there are any schools that specialize in smart cheapskates--provide a good education in the company of smart people at the lowest practical cost, which I would expect to be under half the cost of the elite schools we've been looking at.



At 4:21 PM, May 03, 2007, Blogger Ryan Lackey said...

I think if you're looking for tech schools, it's easier to find good value.

1) Even a very expensive MIT education is heavily subsidized through research grants; I think it was said to cost $70k/yr per student, while tuition at the time was about $25k.

2) There are a fair number of good but very cheap tech schools, e.g. WPI. Of course, the things ivies, etc. spend their money on (ivy, nice buildings, ...) are actually a lot cheaper than the things tech schools buy (nuclear reactors, plasma fusion centers, BL3 bio buildings...), so just because a place looks like a dump doesn't necessarily bean the cost basis is any better than a liberal arts school.

3) The most expensive schools with the highest per-student cost basis are also most likely to be the ones which have the largest resources for financial aid, so for many students, Harvard costs less than DeVry. Mmm, socialism.

For non-tech schools when ineligible for scholarships, I think the standard answer is "in-state state schools" -- UC Berkeley being one of the best. Smaller private schools are probably cheaper than out of state tuition at many state universities, normalized for quality.

At 5:54 PM, May 03, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Take a look at Carnegie Mellon if your daughter is interested in one of their speciality areas -- engineering (computer-related mainly), architecture, music, or drama. They are expensive, but less so than the very very elite schools, and more importantly, when I was there the money was spent on delivering a solid education, and the classes (at least in my discipline, and I got the same impression from others) will demand that the students work very, very hard and actually learn what's being taught.

Now, it might have changed in the years since I've been there. But it's worth considering.

At 5:55 PM, May 03, 2007, Blogger Biomed Tim said...

Alan Krueger of Princeton says:
"Children smart enough to get into elite schools may not need to bother"

Good value schools according to Princeton Review:
Top Ten Best Value Schools

Business Week, "Who Needs Harvard or Yale":
U.S. students are discovering the advantages of elite British universities

Tyler Cowen on this issue:
Where Should You Send Your Kid to College?

At 8:16 PM, May 03, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll go against the grain, here. Send your smart kid off to one of those pretty campuses. It stands to reason that a pretty campus is a better work environment, and thus is more likely to attract better teachers. Plus, it attracts a better grade of student.

I'm a graduate of Harvey Mudd College; I'm sure you're familiar with it. We did our best learning at Mudd from each other.

At 9:14 PM, May 03, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

...provide a good education in the company of smart people at the lowest practical cost, which I would expect to be under half the cost of the elite schools we've been looking at.

It's called grad school... depending on the major, it is usually funded through assistantships. Go to a moderately priced state school, do the best you can and prep for grad school. The top flight schools are pretty good about trying to give opportunity to the best from various schools.

At 10:26 PM, May 03, 2007, Blogger Patri Friedman said...

It seems likely to me that the quality of student would not be as good at a cheapskate college. It is sad that education is so screwed up and such a bad deal, but you can afford - so is it really a bad deal for you?

At 12:29 AM, May 04, 2007, Blogger `Koa said...

I'm the same way.

Financial Aid is nothing more than a cop-out, and because my family "makes" the money, I don't get any... At the same time, I don't have help from my parents because they don't actually have the money the books say they do, and they ask me for money often.

When you find that dream college, let me know!

For now, though, there is always Junior/Community Colleges. I know that in the San Diego area, they are all cutting their hour costs in half, because they realize more people attend, and they end up having more money left over. Finally, someone is wising up.

(p.s. my friend attends Carnegie Mellon, for art if I'm not mistaken, but I don't know how the pricing goes. It's a good school nonetheless)

At 1:59 AM, May 04, 2007, Blogger Ari said...

For value, I can't imagine doing much better than UC Berkeley. Regardless of cost, it's a world-class university -- and taking cost into account, I can't imagine that any other school would even be in the ballpark. Not having gone there (I went to one of those hoity-toity private schools), I can't speak to the quality of the teaching -- but then again, many prestigious research universities (including the expensive ones) aren't necessarily known for making undergraduate education a top priority.

IMHO, a bright and motivated student can get a good education at most decent colleges. The main advantages offered by "top-tier" schools are (1) reputation, and (2) one's classmates are more likely to *also* be bright and motivated. Berkeley is one of the only schools I can think of that scores very high on these points and is also cheap.

At 7:42 AM, May 04, 2007, Blogger Amy said...

When I applied to colleges (that would be ten years ago, already), the clear answer to this question was Rice University in Houston. Tuition was about half the Ivies at that time, with a student population and level of education that was arguably comparable.

Considering my college experience, I absolutely have to say that the most worthwhile part of it was being surrounded by other smart, academically motivated students. Looking back, I could have piled up five or six times the debt I actually did and still felt I'd gotten a good deal for my money, just for the friendships I formed.

The second most worthwhile part was the half a dozen teachers who actually taught me things (how to think critically, how to write clearly) that one simply cannot learn through books.

At 8:27 AM, May 04, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that Ryan hit on the issue. The smart cheapskates who are poor actually go to the Ivy Leagues. The well-off generally decide it's worth the cost and get their parents to pony up.

It's the smart cheapskates whose parents are (in the university's estimation) reasonably well off that have a hard time.

I went to Caltech, and I feel that the most valuable thing about the place was knowing the extraordinary, driven people who go there. There are also certainly some advantages to money and prestige though. The prestige is probably most useful if you plan to get a job right out of college. The money does lots of little things like supporting undergraduate research and study abroad programs. Caltech was a great place to do research as an undergrad. The classes were always hard, but the teaching quality was hit and miss.

My boss recently sent his son to Rice on the basis of his estimation of price per value. Given that you're in California the UCs are probably a good option for you too.

At 4:35 PM, May 04, 2007, Blogger Elizabeth A said...

I went to Scripps, and have mixed reviews. The quality of life was incredibly high - I doubt I will ever be able to personally afford real estate as nice as my sophomore year dorm room - and some of the things you list as having only a tenuous connection to education have genuinely tenuous connections (dorm quality, which, at Scripps, is an interesting historical artifact common to women's colleges founded before 1950), while some are surprisingly important (I, and many other women, would hesitate to use the library until closing time if we hadn't been assured we could get home safely). In Claremont, a late night escort is not the absolute necessity that it is in New York or Boston, but it's still nice. On the other hand, interpersonal drama among English professors was at an all time high when I went and it was kind of a pain. This may not be an issue for your daughter - one of the key players in the crazy interpersonal drama has died, and the others may have mellowed out. Also, I cannot say enough good things about Professor Peavoy, who, so far as I can tell, is still there.

There are schools like Northeastern which seem to market themselves as value options, but looking at the tuition and living costs listed on the website, NEU actually isn't meaningfully less expensive than Scripps, and honestly, while I'm happily planning grad work at NEU, I think that Scripps was better education and higher QoL for the same money for undergrad.

At 8:53 PM, May 04, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, as you note of yourself: "I am an academic economist who teaches at a law school and has never taken a course for credit in either field."

So your reason for believing your children need to go to college?


At 11:46 AM, May 05, 2007, Blogger David Friedman said...

Anonymous asks why I think my children need to go to college.

My children don't "need" to go to college, but I think it would be a valuable experience for them, for two rather different reasons. The first is that they may wish to pursue interests beyond the point that my wife and I, even with the help of books, can adequately help them. The second is that a good college will put them in a society of other bright people about their own age, an experience likely to be valuable. As some evidence I can offer the experience of my older son, who very much enjoyed and, I think, benefited from his years at Harvey Mudd.

Various other people assumed, reasonably but mistakenly, that my question was mainly aimed at my own requirements. As it happens, the luxurious elite colleges fit what we want pretty well, since at this point I'm reasonably well off and am willing to pay for my children to have good food and pleasant surroundings.

But it struck me as odd that luxury and education seemed to be bundled fairly tightly, hence my question.

At 1:45 PM, May 05, 2007, Blogger Peter Bessman said...

You get out of school what you put into it. Put another way, school won't make you smarter --- discipline will. Send your kid to West Point or the Naval Academy if you think she needs to beef up in that department.

Otherwise, the only tangible benefits of school are --- ironically --- the intangibles.

School is a joke that humanity is too stupid to get, in my arrogant-as-a-muv opinion.

At 7:24 PM, May 05, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Go to a moderately priced state school, do the best you can and prep for grad school.

That makes me wonder.

Why don't smart cheapskates who don't qualify for financial aid try their luck applying directly to Grad School?

What is the percentage of people going straight to Grad School?

Why can't one get a great score on the GRE and apply?

At 7:27 PM, May 05, 2007, Blogger Elizabeth A said...

The admissions process for West Point and Annapolis is such that people who haven't acquired personal discipline by the age of 18 cannot arrange to have the military academies instill it for them.

Any old fool can join the military and have a drill sergeant pound them through bootcamp, but no one pretends that's at all like college.

At 10:57 AM, May 07, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

SUNY Geneseo

At 2:16 PM, May 07, 2007, Blogger Zachary Skaggs said...

It strikes me that, as a California resident, the UCs would fit the criteria of where smart cheapstakes would go for "under half the cost of the elite schools."

At 2:39 PM, May 07, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I know a young woman who left her high school after her sophomore year for a nearby Community College, where they offered a three year program in which she was able to earn her high school diploma and two years credit transferable to the Univ of Washington in Seattle.

She got her BA before she was 21, and is considering grad school now.

At 11:35 AM, May 10, 2007, Blogger Joshua Holmes said...

Prof. Friedman,

You assume that college is entirely or mostly about education. Consider that it might be a signalling mechanism, and that a better school might signal the right stuff to be included in certain social classes. Considering the opportunities open to those of that class, those schools might be heavily underpriced.

However, if someone is going to college specifically to be a chemist, then, of course, the quality of the chemistry program should be paramount. If someone is studying history or English, looking to slide into some sort of job, the social class of the university becomes a lot more important.

At 5:56 AM, May 18, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Western Carolina.

At 9:30 PM, May 22, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

CUNY, any senior college campus.

At 3:47 PM, June 04, 2007, Blogger Anthony said...

Joshua Holmes notes that the value of a college degree is at least partially, if not wholly, signalling. Accepting that it is at least partially signalling, one still would do quite well at a University of California, particularly UCB, UCD, and UCLA. UCSD signals pretty strongly, also, though more in some majors than others.

At 1:24 AM, June 18, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Johns Hopkins--the best education...worth every dollar! Regardless of Major, International Relations, Political Science, Biomedical Engineering (and several other engineering programs), Psychology, English, Writing Seminars, French, Vocal Performance, and the list goes on and on!

At 1:33 PM, June 18, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I bounced around a few moderately priced, academically adequate community colleges and state universities. I found the curricula and society only slightly less dull than high school.

Eventually I graduated from Excelsior College, an accredited unschool/distance learning establishment. It is an excellent cheap alternative for intelligent nonconformists.

For intellectual atmosphere and social status, however, I also recommend an elite school. For what it's worth, a decade ago I was acquainted with some very impressive undergraduates from Stanford.

Good luck!

At 5:26 AM, December 27, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I totaly agree with following opinion:

When I applied to colleges (that would be ten years ago, already), the clear answer to this question was Rice University in Houston.

At 5:28 AM, December 27, 2007, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post... If your readers look for us colleges just check followig site:
US Colleges

At 1:40 AM, March 16, 2010, Anonymous James said...

Great Post !

Thanks to Anonymous for sharing the resource link for US colleges which I'm looking for my cousin sister who lived in CA.

Studying in a community college for my college degree.

At 3:46 PM, January 23, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a smart cheapskate and I went to a mediocre university in my home town, and still lived with my parents.


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