Should we really be paying this much?

From as early as elementary school and through high-school and beyond, children in America are pushed to succeed academically. The current perceived economic crisis has made the scramble for jobs just that much more competitive, and as a result, competition in schools has risen to an alarming level. This has led to an increase in applications to the majority of selective colleges, and with it the pressure on adolescents has grown to staggering levels. High stakes tests standardized tests can begin as early as the first grade in many states and be the determining factor in grade placement, which can lead to children being put far behind their classmates, and ultimately behind in the overall job rush.

This only becomes underscored when the high school arrives, and high SAT scores become a key determinant in the quality of college that the student goes to. Particularly for bad test-takers, and disadvantaged students who cannot afford expensive test prep, high-stake tests are especially stressful. But tests aren’t the sole determinant of college acceptance, as the competitiveness breeds the endless endeavor to get the best GPA in school, have the most extracurricular activities, and take the most “Advanced Placement” classes. The elite ivy leagues have long been regarded as the primary road to success, but with the ever increasing price of education, and the substantial burden of rivalry, is attending a private college actually worth it?

The price on college overall is on the rise, making attending out of state schools difficult for adolescents, let alone a private school; This coupled with the fact that 40% of people settle for a job that doesn’t pertain to their major makes elite colleges seem less of a bargain . The lack of educational benefits, based on an absence of increased monetary returns to investment, show that it is not worth it to attend a private university over a public university.  

The biggest issue when analyzing the effect of collegiate attendance is the disparity in the quality of students in elite colleges versus that of those in public colleges. The increased selectivity that private colleges have creates a bias that skews any data that is not corrected for; only the best students, and in turn the most promising high-earning workers, are accepted into private colleges, but does that mean that the colleges themselves create better opportunities in the job market?Early research done by Brewer and Ehrenberg, among others, when interest in elite college effects were at their peak, indicate that highly selective colleges do yield a significant economic payoff. However they fail to adequately control for private colleges systematic selection, a study by Brand and Halaby was the first to study participants from “high school graduation [to over] four decades of labor force participation” and factor in the “selection bias” by also evaluating student quality through SAT scores, Grade Point Average, Class rank, and other pre college aspects. The study finds that mid-career, and elite college has a positive benefit on career prospects and these effects only scales upwards when heading later in one’s career.

However, this does not mean that private colleges are creating the better “bread winners” as “the returns to attending an elite college for those who did attend are small by comparison to those that would have been achieved by otherwise equivalent students who attended non-elite institutions." The students that graduate private colleges do indeed earn more, but the fact that students of equal quality achieve equivalent earnings to those regardless of what school that they attend, show that private colleges do not create better workers. The greatest benefit of this study is that it collected data for a period of time longer than any other study, but this is also its weakness.

In the recent years, changes have occurred with how we value education, and as the job market becomes more and more competitive it may be that elite private institutions have become the only way to secure an advantage over competitors. Common sense says that potential employers would choose a worker who graduated from a better school; thus, private colleges may provide the only way to ensure a good career and overall economic success. However the evidence points against this, proving instead that student intelligence is the key to greater earnings. Another study by Marc C. Long examines a variety of aspects in college quality and their effect on determining adulthood outcomes; which states that just a 116 increase in median SAT score “increase[s] the likelihood of earning a bachelor’s degree by 10.4%” and that there are significant “positive effects…[for] hourly earnings”. Thus elite college effects on “wages are mixed”, showing a stronger “positive effect… for late career earnings, but [ultimately] not uniform” and inconclusive.

The innate ability of the student is the indicator for good career outcomes not the rank of college they attend; their aptness for success creates paths for greater job opportunities inevitably resulting in elite collegiate acceptance and attendance for those that are economically capable. 

By ignoring the bias of student quality altogether, private colleges seem to provide greater economic returns than public schools, but when analyzing individual facets of college quality one can see that the benefits of private education do not lay within the education that the institution provides but rather within the community that they hold. Long’s study uses increments to analyze how much added monetary benefit it provides: for example, one standard deviation of quality provides an extra amount of earning. He studied the primary source of a student’s education: the teachers. By evaluating the faculty quality based on professor salary he found that, for earnings, the results were “mixed” and “the effects on degree attainment [were] all insignificant”. While, pay doesn’t necessarily determine the effectiveness of a teacher private institutions pay their professors more and this shows that higher paid professors don’t translate into better economic returns.

On the other hand, lower class sizes or a high professor-student ratio has a clear positive effect, both [increas[ing] the likelihood of earning a bachelor’s degree by 13[%]” and having the potential to “increase… annual earnings by $2790.” In a selective private institution their faculty to student ratio is very often low, thus the student professor interaction is high, in comparison to the public mass-lecture style of the typical public college. Even so, this effect can be mimicked with smaller colleges which naturally have a larger faculty to student ratio, or in specialized programs such as honor colleges which many universities provide, that make private colleges unnecessary.

Finally the most prominent facet of college quality is the quality of students, that is, the peers that a potential student would interact with. It turns out to be the biggest influence of greater earnings as classmates of better quality “would raise… annual earnings by $3727.” The selectivity that private colleges provide surrounds prospective students with ideal conditions to not only learn off of each other, but also to form connections that last into their ventures in the job market, leading to more job opportunities and greater monetary gain. The community is a key aspect to the college lifestyle; however, the elite student population is simply an added bonus to the college, it doesn’t pertain to the education that the college itself provides. Private colleges as a whole do not provide better education they simply congregate better opportunities for eventual success in the future.

Regardless of the educational value that the college provides, if a student doesn’t even obtain a degree, his time and money spent there becomes essentially wasted. A study by Scott suggests that public institutions actually have the potential to graduate a larger percentage of students than private institutions. Public colleges are often associated with extended graduation periods increasing the time it takes to graduate from four to six years; however, when both institutions are given the same student body (equivalent intelligence) and resources, they actually perform better than private colleges. In short, they are able to make better use of the resources that are available providing a more efficient investment. On the other hand, for many people a bachelor’s degree is simply the stepping stone they must reach before graduate school. Eide shows that attending a private college “increases the probability of attending graduate school, and more specifically, increases the likelihood of attending graduate school at a major research institution.” This hidden benefit of private institutions may help as a better graduate school could lead to a better job, but once again it doesn’t pertain to the actual educational value that the school provides.  

Attending a private college may increase the social opportunities in the job market, but evidence shows that they don’t provide one with a better education, and the cost of attendance, the financial burden they entail, is simply not be as valuable as was once thought. The overwhelming regality that colleges in the “ivy league” have always historically held, has led many to fall into a mentality trap of “you get what you pay for”. Leading many of America’s youth to scramble to compete for the top spots, stressing and overtaxing themselves to get something that only very few will obtain. This bearing is not only detrimental to the population but ultimately superfluous as the education from a 100th ranked college is just as effective as one from the 10th ranked college. Ultimately the extra tens of thousands of dollars a year simply goes towards a fancy prestigious name like “Stanford” or “Harvard”. What is done with the education comes down to the individual’s drive and intelligence; they are not restricted by institutions public or private.  Instead of pushing to get into the best college it is much more important to develop how to learn and be successful in school to prepare oneself for success in the real world.