OPINION: Out of necessity, I taught my son to choose a college for its value, not its prestige or vibe — My latest in The Hechinger Report

Without photoshopping his face onto the body of a water polo athlete, like some of the parents caught up in the recent U.S. college cheating scandal, I could have prepped my older son, Jonah, for college like a prize pumpkin at the county fair.

Starting when he was in middle school, I could have taken a stronger role in overseeing his schoolwork by editing his papers, re-teaching certain subjects and hiring tutors in others. I could have checked his online gradebooks daily. I could have supervised homework and nudged him to schmooze with teachers. In high school, we could have hired one-on-one tutors to prepare him for standardized tests. I could have pushed him to take on leadership positions in clubs he didn’t care about. I could have written his essay and filled out the Common Application for him.

Lots of parents do these tasks; most aren’t even considered cheating. It’s just how things are done these days among many upper- and middle-class families.

With our backgrounds in higher education, my husband and I have more relevant skills than many other families in our community. We likely could have micromanaged our kid into Harvard. But we didn’t. Between our son’s stubborn resistance to our help, and our own ethics and laziness, we did very little to turn our kid into a tidy package for colleges. Instead, I taught my son how to be a good education consumer.

More here.

24 thoughts on “OPINION: Out of necessity, I taught my son to choose a college for its value, not its prestige or vibe — My latest in The Hechinger Report

  1. Great article!!! I bet that one will get a lot of interest – you present a lot of relevant information in a useful way. And it’s stuff you don’t see written about everywhere. (You should get one of those “grown and flown” bloggers to link to it!)

    For our daughter, we were very lucky and didn’t have to do anything – she took care of everything (the lists, the spreadsheets, the schedules, the deadlines.) The only thing she’d let us do is proof her essays. (I can tell already this may not be the case with our 2nd kid – I will probably be making the spreadsheets, and reminding deadlines….)

    We took a similar approach regarding the cost – we could pay $X dollars, and anything over that was on her. She wanted a small school, and ended up getting some nice merit aid offers that made her final choice comparable to the big state university here (which offered no merit aid) That was the one surprising part of the process to me – we ended up finding a bunch of lovely, perfectly adequate smaller schools that aren’t necessarily top-tier, but that all seemed to be able to offer a decent education and a nice aid package to land them in the affordable range. (the majority of them fell on this list: https://ctcl.org/category/college-profiles/ )

    Where we live, I find almost everyone goes to the big state public university (or one of its branches across the state.) Also, a lot of kids start at the community college and transfer – we presented that as a good option too. I think it makes sense in a lot of ways for a lot of kids.

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  2. I think you describe a process many families go through, and you ended in the place that the majority of college-bound students end up: attending a public institution in their home state. Data from the National Center for Education Statistics show that 75% of college students attend a public institution, and 75% also attend an institution 500 miles or less from home. Of course, those numbers include the approximately 40% of all college students who attend community colleges (something like 60% of students who have graduated with bachelor’s degrees in the last decade have taken more than one community college course or have transferred from a CC to the four-year school. That is more the norm than those who leave home and live in a dorm).

    I often think the college rankings system is just another way to induce status anxiety among parents; I know it develops status anxiety among colleges–years ago, some folks at my own alma mater reached out to me, then a faculty member at a nationally ranked institution, to see what they could do to raise their rankings: not improve the quality of education, but just place them higher on the various lists. That said, it is hard not to fall for it.

    I am glad to see you asked about adjuncts–as a former adjunct who was fortunate enough to be hired full-time at the same place I taught part-time, I am grateful you made it a point to find out. No point paying big tuition bucks for a TA, either.

    One final point: I think no matter what you did or did not do, Harvard (my dad’s alma mater, courtesy of the US Navy) was never in the cards. See this recent study: https://slate.com/business/2019/09/harvard-admissions-affirmative-action-white-students-legacy-athletes-donors.html

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    1. I saw that study of Harvard, which put some numbers on what I already knew: the astonishing degree of preference for athletes at prestigious schools. And not just D1 schools: D3 schools like Bowdoin may not give athletic scholarships, but they give lots of admission preference to recruited athletes. I really don’t understand it. Even if a winning football team increases alumni donations, which I’m not sure it does, surely a winning sailing team has no such effect. The one explanation I can think of is that athletes are less trouble–and easier to punish when they cause trouble, as we saw with the Duke lacrosse team–than other students. That doesn’t seem a sufficient explanation.

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      1. My D3 school seems to give preference to male athletes because we like to keep our gender balance close to 52-48 and sports are good way to recruit domestic students of color. It’s been a long time since our football team has had a winning record. . .

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    2. I believe that the athletic recruitment is affirmative action for wealthy white students. Rowing, sailing, lacrosse, golf, swimming, hockey, tennis, all sports in which there is little participation of people of color.

      https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2018/10/college-sports-benefits-white-students/573688/

      Indirectly, of course, admitting wealthy white students, legacies contribute to fundraising (but not through the success of the football team).

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      1. It seems that the effect of athletic preferences is to advantage wealthy white applicants–although the study suggests that most of the favored students would have been replaced by less wealthy white applicants–but is that indeed the purpose? Athletic preferences as the literacy tests of the 21st century? There’s almost nothing so depraved that I wouldn’t believe it of college administrators, but I’m really not sure what they are trying to achieve here.

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      2. y81 said,

        “It seems that the effect of athletic preferences is to advantage wealthy white applicants–although the study suggests that most of the favored students would have been replaced by less wealthy white applicants–but is that indeed the purpose? Athletic preferences as the literacy tests of the 21st century? There’s almost nothing so depraved that I wouldn’t believe it of college administrators, but I’m really not sure what they are trying to achieve here.”

        A while back, somebody that I was reading thought that it was because this demographic is especially likely to eventually make a lot of money and give generously to their alma mater.

        Somebody is paying for all those new athletic complexes…

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    3. The Atlantic article cites statistics that say that the percent of athletes who are white exceeds the percent of students who are white in most college groupings (all colleges, 61%, ivy league, 65%, D3, New England, 79%) .

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  3. Our oldest tells me that her prospective homecoming date was unable to bake his homecoming ask cake for her this weekend, as he wound up writing college essays all weekend instead.

    The struggle is real!

    burkemblog said,

    “One final point: I think no matter what you did or did not do, Harvard (my dad’s alma mater, courtesy of the US Navy) was never in the cards. See this recent study:”

    That’s a fair point.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I liked your article, Laura, especially the part about openly discussing finances with parents. Parents and grandparents who think “they’ll make it work” often underestimate the current cost of colleges and the scholarship & merit aid that’s made available. Say, for example, USC offers automatic merit aid to National Merit Finalists — but, it is only 1/2 tuition, about 28,000 dollars. The cost of attendance at USC is still 46K after the merit aid. That’s much lower than 75K but still more than the cost of attendance at local public universities, even when they are high cost.

    If I had a quibble, it would be where one goes looking for tuition discounting lower than the aid calculators that can found at web sites. I do not think out of state public universities are the place, absent official merit scholarships (like University of Alabama’s NMF scholarship). Schools do offer aid to families with higher incomes, but public schools probably have little flexibility. That kind of tuition discounting might be more likely to be found at private schools that are looking to buy your 30K of tuition/cost of attendance dollars and get your student: schools where your child has higher stats than average and offers diversity to the campus (being a male is diversity at some of those schools). Those schools might also be more willing to negotiate. In my neck of the woods, that includes schools like Lewis & Clark & Linfield, who want to attract higher stats students who would otherwise go to in state public schools.

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    1. bj said, “Parents and grandparents who think “they’ll make it work” often underestimate the current cost of colleges and the scholarship & merit aid that’s made available.”

      There are some gotchas. For example, I was unaware until recently that the minimum meal plan for freshmen at Hometown U. is $5k.

      $5,000 is a LOT of food for an 18-year-old girl to eat over the course of 9 months (although it might be a very good deal for bigger eaters).

      Hometown U. also has pretty stiff fees, which are also not covered by any scholarships that are just for tuition.

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      1. If you plan 36 weeks, 20 meals a week (1 meal out) then $5k for nine months is about $7 meal for prepared food. That’s completely reasonable. If she cooked for herself it would be expensive, but for cooked meals? Not at all extravagant.

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      2. Tulip said, “If you plan 36 weeks, 20 meals a week (1 meal out) then $5k for nine months is about $7 meal for prepared food. That’s completely reasonable. If she cooked for herself it would be expensive, but for cooked meals? Not at all extravagant.”

        Who wants that many hot meals, though? I remember that in my college days, it was often hard to eat 14 cafeteria meals a week.

        Also, the meal plan with the kind of quantity you’re describing is $6k a year–the $5k plan covers a lot fewer meals.

        They give them a lot more flexibility with regard to meal plan size starting sophomore year.

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      3. Ok, then it’s just over $8 a meal ($6K). Still not extravagant. Food is prepared, no dishes, not cheap, but not expensive either.

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      4. “$5,000 is a LOT of food for an 18-year-old girl to eat over the course of 9 months (although it might be a very good deal for bigger eaters)”
        Hey! The Freshman Fifteen isn’t going to grow itself!

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      5. ds said, “Hey! The Freshman Fifteen isn’t going to grow itself!”

        Yeah.

        I’m a middle-aged lady (so mileage does vary), but I find that two cafeteria meals a day really blows up the calorie count. I shudder at the likely consequences of three hot meals a day plus dessert bar/soft serve machine…

        On the other hand, the cafeteria is virtually the perfect way to feed an athletic teenage boy.

        I was doing a bit of research/procrastination today and discovered the following:

        –a single dorm room at Hometown U. is $X per semester
        –a single dorm room at Hometown U. with bath shared with one other person is $X + $65 per semester
        –a single dorm room at Hometown U. with personal bath is $X + $765 per semester.

        HA HA NO!

        That uptick from bath-shared-with-one-person to mine-all-mine costs about $175 a month, versus the shared bath representing a $16 a month upgrade over big communal bathroom down the hall.

        We’re wobbling back and forth between dorm or no dorm (as we have the option of our oldest just living at home and walking to class), but it’s looking like no dorm. My husband lived at home with his parents until well into his grad career, so he doesn’t get the charm of dorm living. If it is going to be dorm (maybe just for a year?), we would probably let her get a single…

        Yeah, we’re pretty soft.

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      6. Hahaha. Presuming students’ gender and varying their meal prices accordingly. About as likely as discipline in the NYC public schools.

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      7. $8 per meal is what you might expect to pay in a restaurant, but not in a cafeteria, with limited choice, not ever cooked to order, and really, how much is a bowl of cereal and a slice of toast and a banana? or a sandwich and a bowl of soup? Again, yikes!

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      8. EB said, “$8 per meal is what you might expect to pay in a restaurant, but not in a cafeteria, with limited choice, not ever cooked to order, and really, how much is a bowl of cereal and a slice of toast and a banana? or a sandwich and a bowl of soup? Again, yikes!”

        They are actually moving toward more cooked to order stuff (like omelettes or pastas or stir fries or whatever) but a) there’s usually only one station like that even in a big cafeteria and b) what about the kid who literally just wants a bowl of Cheerios for breakfast?

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  5. Actually if you have athletic daughters you’d be surprised by how much they eat. My 16 year old niece is a gymnast and swims in summer and wow! My sister cooks most meals and still spends a fortune feeding her three daughters. Both my sister and brother in law struggled to get enough to feed their athletic lifestyles in college. Me, I’m totally not athletic and thus by cooking at home was able to feed myself on 25 dollars a week in 1989.

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    1. Marianne wrote, “Actually if you have athletic daughters you’d be surprised by how much they eat. My 16 year old niece is a gymnast and swims in summer and wow! My sister cooks most meals and still spends a fortune feeding her three daughters. Both my sister and brother in law struggled to get enough to feed their athletic lifestyles in college. Me, I’m totally not athletic and thus by cooking at home was able to feed myself on 25 dollars a week in 1989.”

      Yeah, my home comparison cases are a) a very non-athletic 17-year-old girl versus b) very athletic 14-year-old boy.

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