Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Let's Throw Some More Bombs - Higher Education Edition

That's right, it's time for another Controversial Opinion™ by your favorite Jewbiquitous contrarian.

Recently, I got into a fight on the internet about higher education. I rarely say clearly what I mean in a comment or forum post, and this was no exception. I strode into an argument about whether Connecticut should offer in-state tuition for illegal immigrants, and my argument was:

U. Conn. sucks.

Well, it wasn't that simplistic. But I did make the mistake of injecting one policy argument into another; I really didn't care about immigration, per se; just college prices.

Instead of rehashing the crap I said the first time, let me rephrase it:

The two most prestigious schools in the United States, Harvard and Yale, are, if not exactly free for the kind of illegal immigrant students who tug on our heartstrings (i.e., poor-ish children of laborers), so significantly tuition-reduced so that they are state-school affordable (Yale, as a bonus, happens to be in Connecticut). There is then a short list of other schools (depending on where you are, ten to thirty) for whom, like Harvard and Yale, the names also open up doors and it doesn't matter what they cost, the debt is worth it; check your local labor market for which these are, although Chicago, Stanford, and U.C. Berkeley are probably always there.

There are then a whole bunch of schools that are, while somewhat selective, somewhat known as "good," but basically offer nothing more than an expensive credentialling service. This would be where U. Conn. falls in.

I come from this from the law school angle (which IS a credentialling service), where the top 10% of every law school can hope to snag a plum job, but outside of that top 10%, if it's not Harvard, Yale, Chicago, or (insert most famous local school), anything lower means a hard slog for jobs. The roughly 190 law schools in the United States hire law professors almost exclusively from Harvard, Yale, and Chicago (with a little Penn and Stanford thrown in), all of whom have done prior judicial clerkships and published, so it's not really like there's a huge difference in the education or scholarship of law professors between NYU and NYLS.

The only real difference, as far as I can tell, is school selectiveness as a measure of overall talent; NYU can get, generally, the more intelligent and more ambitious students. But if you're not one of the "elite of the elite," the fact that I tested modestly better than a CUNY student on the LSAT (and got into a better school as a result) is not a reason to hire me if the other person did better in law school, and legal employers know this.

I can't imagine that other sophisticated employers don't know this; therefore, I would posit that, unless you know you can get into the top-scoring group of students at your university, you should reduce your "class" (and price!) of university until you can expect to be an honors student, unless you can get into a name which no one will care what your class rank is. As such, all colleges that are not in the small clique around Harvard are overpriced to the extent that they cost more than vocational schools or community colleges and deliver the same benefits to their students.

This, of course, does not apply to academics. But for the "bachelor's degree and then on to the cube farm unrelated to my degree" track that is so much of middle-class higher education, it's just not worth it.

* * *

Honestly, I think the mindset creating the University of Richmond vs. Fordham vs. Pomona vs. Adelphi vs. Hofstra vs. University of Memphis gradations make college applicant teens (and their parents) waaaay too crazy and give an unrealistic view of what most of the thousands of colleges in America offer. And it drives the prices up for everyone.

As for illegal immigrants, that's a story for another day. I basically picked on them to be better economic consumers because they don't have a choice and I can't force the rest of stupid America, which is jerk of me. So ignore that part. College prices are too high, and it's because we like to pretend that our moderately smart teens are worth paying $20,000 a year more than our nominally smart teens, despite the lack of gradations in opportunity for both.

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