If you are so concerned with the value (in dollars) of a secondary education for your child as to write a blog post about how private schools are not worth how much they cost, then you should send your children to a trade school and be done with it. Because a university education is not meant for people who assess value this way, and there are more expedient and efficient methods of getting your kids a good job than sending them into a four-year university.
Whenever the question of kids’ college educations comes up in the frugalosphere, there seems to be a general consensus that you should be seeing a high return on investment, in dollars, for how much you spend to send your kids to school. This is usually touted as a dollar amount added to the kids’ salary over the course of his or her post-college career. Because of this, the argument is often made that kids should never be sent to private school, when state schools are cheaper and just as valuable. I am a fan of many state school systems, so my beef is not with the championing of these programs, what troubles me about these kinds of arguments, both as a former university instructor and the graduate of a private undergraduate institution, is that they are based upon two fundamental fallacies about university educations: 1) that a university education can be valued strictly in terms of dollars returned on investment; and 2) that the distinction is to be made between all public and all private institutions, rather than evaluating on a school-by-school basis. The pontificating based on these two misconceptions is at the root of what I think is the most egregious problem with American higher education today: the overpopulation of universities and the demise of well-established trade schools.
First, The University Education Is Not a Commodity, Strictly Speaking
To fairly value a university education, you have to look at it in its historical context: the university was originally created to house public intellectuals and academics and to educate a landed class of aristocrats who did not need to worry about income. Though the purpose of the university education has evolved over years and across continents, vestiges of that original purpose of a “gentlemanly education” still exist in its methods and practices. This is why you are expected to take courses in fine arts and literature, even if there does not appear to be an immediate practical, monetary application to this kind of curriculum. In short, there was thought to be a value in encouraging a general intellectualism in the landed class — a value in the concept of a “gentlemanly education” that would produce more well-rounded and responsible citizens. That is the university’s heritage, and it is what it does, still, to this day.
And whether you agree with the concept of paying for a “gentlemanly education” — roughly, an education in broad strokes across a huge range of subjects so as to produce a generally “educated” or culturally literate citizen — that is what the university is designed to do. When you send your child to a university, you are implicitly placing your trust in the university to instill in them the values of this gentlemanly education as it exists today, which is chiefly to teach students how to think critically and to give them a broad base in cultural productions across a variety of subjects. Not all of these topics have a specific application or a likely monetary value. They operate on a completely different type of value system, one which you are free to accept or reject as any other consumer.
People might argue that the concept of a gentlemanly education is outdated, elitist, and ultimately of no use. There are viable arguments to be made here, but it’s not my purpose today to fight that particular fight. What I want to talk about today is that the valuation of education in dollar terms is at the root of the problems I saw first hand in my experience teaching at the university level: viz., that students have been taught to view their education in terms of dollars returned to them, and as such are not getting out of their education what it is designed to do. This kind of thinking that leads one to determine how much each course is costing in dollars and to value a grade over the mastery of the content of a course might make sense if you went to the university to learn a skill, or to apprentice in a trade.
What has happened with the university system as it exists in America today is that there are, quite simply, too many students enrolled. Students have been told that the way to get ahead in life is to go to college, and that is not an accurate portrait of what college offers you. In fact, if your goal is monetary gain, there are far more expeditious and efficient routes to your goal than going to a university. If you doubt this, think of it this way: if your goal is to teach your children how to make money in the workforce, is a bunch of academics the right group to send them to? People who fight tooth and nail for positions that pay at best $60,000 a year? Now who is the dumb one here?
Second, If You’re Going To Say It’s a Commodity, Then Why Not Go All-Out With The Metaphor?
It is my contention that this large-scale educational problem starts begins with the kind of thinking that I see demonstrated in a guest post by Neal Frankel of Wealth Pilgrim on Five Cent Nickel (and then followed up by Nickel with a post regarding the lowest-paying college majors). This post concludes that a “fancy college degree” isn’t “worth it” in terms of the money expended for the amount of value achieved in the form of increased salary in the workplace. Not only does it fail to discuss other forms of value that are gleaned from a university education — it has a confusion in terms because the examples cited of “fancy schools” are hardly what I would consider “fancy” personally. Now if what you mean is “private,” or “expensive,” then I’m sure that these schools do qualify under those headings, but “private” or “expensive” is not the same thing as being ranked the highest or considered the best in any given field. And if you start with that kind of misconception, then it leads to others, like the idea that paying for a private education is never “worth it,” whether your value scale is based upon purely monetary terms or a different system of value.
In short, if we’re going to view universities as commodities, let’s really go all out and view them as commodities. This argument reads like you’re saying it’s never worth it to buy a $1500 suit because one time you saw a poorly made, ugly one by Dolce & Gabbana. Which, yeah, OK, maybe that suit isn’t worth the price they were asking. But what about this well-made Hickey Freeman that will last over a decade? Is it never worth it to buy a suit like that, under any circumstances? What if your job is such that people will judge you on what kind of suit you wear? Do you still insist that the cheaper version is better?
The thing about education is that if you are going to view it like a commodity, then view it like any other commodity. It might not be worth it to pay a lot more for a similar product, but if the product is far superior and more expensive, maybe it is worth it. Are there different opportunities offered by elite colleges? And by “elite” I mean, really elite, not just private or expensive. Are there connections that can be made at a school like one of the Ivies that cannot be made as easily at even a very good state school? Will the class size result in a better education for your child? Is your child the type to go seek out extra attention from an instructor? Because if he or she goes to a state school, they will be exposed to an excellent teaching staff, but they may have to do more to get the attention of that staff. How well will your child deal with that? Is it worth it to pay more to make this process easier? These are the kinds of questions you should be asking, not whether or not it’s OK to pay for a private education or not.
I cannot help but wonder if these periodic discussions about how kids can “just go to state school” are being made to make people feel better about the opportunities they are giving their children. Here’s a news flash: you are under no obligation to provide for your kids’ educations. If it bothers you so much, then don’t do it. But if you’re going to do it, then do the best you can — and this includes looking at each school and all the forms of value it offers to your child — rather than just making simplistic arguments about the amount of money it is likely to translate into in terms of salary or a return on your investment.