2.4.06

WHY I KEEP POSTING ON THE SAME THEMES. Three articles, three different story lines, one common message. Start with a Washington Post Magazine article (via Phi Beta Cons) evaluating the premium from attending a name college.
Research implies that is actually the case. According to these recent studies, when you do a cold, hard analysis -- removing family dreams and visions of class rings -- the Ivies and other elite private schools simply aren't worth the money. The answer isn't conclusive, and there are skeptics -- at the Ivies and elsewhere. But at the least, the research should give parents pause and prompt them to conduct a cost-benefit analysis before steering their child to an elite private college.
Yes, I've noted this before. But it bears repeating: institutions of higher education have a responsibility to challenge their charges.

THE DEBATE ABOUT THE VALUE of an exclusive education is not new. For years, many people, particularly those at the high-end public universities (the public Ivies), have argued that the value of four years at an elite private school is overstated. The conventional wisdom on those
schools is more the result of long-held impressions than actual results, they say.

In the late 1990s, two academics decided to measure whether those elite private schools really delivered on what they promised. Alan Krueger, an economist at Princeton, and Stacy Dale, a researcher with the Andrew Mellon Foundation, compared 1976 freshmen at 34 colleges -- from Yale, Stanford and Wellesley to Penn State and Miami University of Ohio. They separated out a subgroup of those freshmen who had applied to the same pool of elite colleges. They then took that subgroup, now full of elite and public school grads, and compared their wages in 1995.

The findings? The income levels of these graduates were essentially the same, though very poor students seemed to get a slight benefit from an elite private education. For most students, there was no real post-college earning benefit gained from an elite undergraduate degree. The better predictor was where the students had applied.

That's economics research. Confirmation is coming from practitioners in other disciplines.

In their 2005 update of their book How College Affects Students, two professors who study higher education, Ernest Pascarella of the University of Iowa and Patrick Terenzini of Penn State, raise similar points. The book, a synthesis of three decades of research, finds that "little consistent evidence suggested that college selectivity, prestige or educational resources had any net impact in such areas as learning, cognitive and intellectual development, the majority of psychosocial changes, the development of principled moral reasoning, or shifts in attitudes and values." In other words, you might be a different person when you leave college, but not because of how hard it was to get into the school you chose.

Dale, a graduate of the University of Michigan, goes further. While there is something to be said for the intellectually stimulating environment of, say, Harvard, she says that such an environment can cut both ways for some students. "A student who goes to Princeton and finds himself in the middle of the pack might get discouraged. After all, everything up to this point in his life has probably been about how special he is. At a different school, that same student might be something more exceptional and catch the eye of a professor who takes an interest in him."

And while there is, without question, some advantage to meeting future CEOs, law firm partners and members of Congress on those storied campuses, the effects can be overstated, Dale says. After all, the alumni networks of big public schools are, by definition, big and broad. And the power of elite schools may be waning. A study by the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania (an Ivy) found that in 1980, 14 percent of top executives at Fortune 100 companies received their undergraduate degrees from an Ivy League school. That figure was down to 10 percent by 2001. At the same time, the percentage of executives with undergraduate degrees from public colleges and universities climbed from 32 percent in 1980 to 48 percent in 2001.

There is also the possibility that the elite schools have been pursuing the wrong model ... and, like every other fad, following it without thinking. A similar error might be present in the thinking at the public comprehensives, many of which appear bent on emulating Wayne State. One that did not is George Mason, soon to get an enrollment bump from their basketball tournament run. But this Opinion Journal story reveals the value in being, to some extent, contrarian.

With some 28,000 students, GMU resembles many large state schools in that it provides an affordable education to a broad range of people. For state residents, tuition is about $3,000 a semester; for those out of state, $8,500. (These amounts roughly correspond to a few weeks of classroom time at nearby Georgetown.) The education it offers is intellectually rigorous--I can attest to the rigor, having suffered through plenty of annoyingly demanding tests, paper-writing assignments and required courses. But George Mason has no intentions of being an "elite" institution, and a good thing too.

Mason began as an extension of the University of Virginia in 1957 and became independent 15 years later. Such relative youth is a clear advantage. The school came into its own after the 1960s generation passed through the halls of higher education. Student protest, and the effort to appease it, never became part of its culture.

George W. Johnson, GMU's president from 1978 to 1996, exploited this advantage. He grounded the school in technology, computer science and economics, leaving to elite institutions the competition for hot (read: postmodern) humanities scholars. He also exploited the school's proximity to Washington, using it as a selling point to bring professors to the area and also pulling into the professorial ranks various policy analysts, intellectuals and former government officials.

Not Michigan, but not Wayne State either. And, apparently, successful at what it does. There is value in asking the most of the students and the faculty and providing the support to do the same, rather than adopting a "we'll-never-be-Michigan-so-what's-the-use" attitude. That, even if your applicants might be responding completely emotionally to events that don't have to concern them. Mason's enrollment fairs will be better-attended. Northern Illinois is still drawing thanks to some football success. (It doesn't hurt that we're in the middle of one of the most liveable areas of the country.) Something the reverse might occur at Duke.
Most students seemed primarily worried about the stain on Duke's reputation, and whether Duke will get its share, or "yield," of the best and brightest. This was the week that Duke sent out letters of acceptance to eager high-school students. "I've had 800 conversations with people who are afraid it will hurt our yield and make our diplomas look a little less fancy," said Julia Torti, a senior.
(Via Chris at Signifying Nothing.) Lose your integrity, lose everything.

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