Monday, October 12, 2009

Should you go to the best school you get into?

by Andrew Gillen

David Leonhardt has an interesting piece up at the NYT discussing the graduation rate problem at many schools.
If you were going to come up with a list of organizations whose failures had done the most damage to the American economy... the list should also include a less obvious nominee: public universities. terms of its core mission — turning teenagers into educated college graduates — much of the system is simply failing.
Make sure to check out the graphic too.

One odd thing is that Leonhardt states "Conservatives are wrong to suggest affordability doesn’t matter." Perhaps I'm blinded because I work at CC[Affordability]P, but are there really people, let alone an entire political worldview, who've argued that affordability doesn't matter?

But moving on...

The second half of the piece gives a lot of weight to a new book, Crossing the Finish Line. Apparently (I just got the book so I haven't read it yet - so I'm going off of Leonhardt's interpretation), the book argues that you should go to the best school you get into, the logic being that this improves your chances of graduation - again see the graphic. While this may help avoid the problem of low income students enrolling in a worse college where they are less likely to graduate, this is potentially very dangerous advice, largely because graduation isn't the only thing that matters. The cost of college and job placement upon graduation also matter.

My understanding of the widely misunderstood Dale and Krueger paper is that if you get into a top school, you should go. This is consistent with the Crossing the Finish Line recommendation.

However, the top schools in the country admit a minuscule fraction of all students, and I'm not convinced that lots of low income kids are getting into Harvard, Princeton and Yale and not going, especially since the top schools are increasingly generous with need based aid thanks to huge endowments.

For non-top schools (ie, where the vast majority of students go to college), I'm not sure the advice is sound. The better schools tend to be more expensive, and when you combine that with the fact that lots of college graduates (40% last I saw) have jobs that don't require a degree, you've got a recipe for high debt and poor job prospects. Nor is this just a hypothetical objection. See this piece by William D. Henderson and Andrew P. Morriss for a real world example of how following the advice to go to the best school you can get into can lead to quite catastrophic consequences once you move past the very top schools.

To sum up, my take is that the advice to go to the best school you can get into is sound if you're thinking about upgrading from a school ranked 115 to one ranked 15. On the other hand, not many students have that option open to them, and are instead choosing between a school ranked 550 and one ranked 450. It's not so obvious that moving up those 100 spots would be worth another 10k a year in debt. Since there are many more students in the second scenario than the first, and those in the first tend to make the recommended choice anyway, I think the advice "go to the best school you can get into" can ultimately hurt more students than it helps once cost and job outcomes are taken into consideration. However, I'll hold off on taking a stand one way or the other until I've had a chance to read their complete argument.

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