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Thursday, June 4, 2009

Border Crossings: College Choices and Student Loans

Little do you know, Dear Readers, that we have been on a road trip to Tuscaloosa, where dear Miss Em will be going to college. Out of all the zillions of colleges here and abroad, is that her ultimate choice? No, I don't suppose it is. Would she rather live in Paris, Boston, New York City, or San Francisco? No doubt. Would she rather go to a nurturing, top-quality liberal arts college like Swarthmore or Oberlin? No doubt.

I've written about the college choice issue before, so let me just aummarize. Miss Em had very high scores on some of the tests that count, so we applied to schools that offer substantial merit aid to those students. That limited our choices right off the bat.

Yes, here we are at the paradox of choice, which is the title of a book written by a professor from, as it happens, Swarthmore. His basic point is that too many choices create confusion and clutter. He noted that his students--brainy and savvy enough to get into a competitive college--are not as happy as one would expect: they are stressed out by all their choices. I had a similar experience when I had to choose kitchen cabinets. Even toothpaste can be a problem! So a key to greater contentment is to create boundaries.

I am thinking about this today because Gail Collins has a piece in the New York Times on college loans. Luckily, education loans will not be an issue for my family. Actually, being loan-free was a choice as outlined above.

Predictably, the essay includes a vignette: a student from Texas who went to NYU and found himself upon graduation the possessor of $50,000 in student loans. He claims that the lenders never told him what repayment would look like! I happen to think that lenders are just as manipulative with students as they are with uneducated subprime borrowerers (and that does not include the now-notorious Edmund Andrews). But that's not what I'm interested in right now.

In an earlier post, I suggested that we not "cross borders" in our experiences. Hence, you go to Disney World to have fun on the rides, not to eat overpriced mediocre food or to buy souvenirs. Similarly, you go to college for an education not to live in a great city. The student in the Collins essay said that he could have gone to a Texas state college for a bargain price (true dat), but that he wanted to be in New York.

How about this? Go to UT Austin (if you can get in; otherwise pick another excellent state college). then, in the summer, go to New York, stay in a youth hostel ($20.00/night); eat in ethnic restaurants, go to shows, museums, and people watch.

UT Austin: I'm guessing here--maybe $15,000/yr in-state for tuition, room, and board. Four years would be $60,000.

NYU: around $48,000/yr for tuition, room, and board. Four years add up to almost $200,000! (Note--if your family earns under around $80,000/year, you qualify for massive need-based aid, so go ahead and apply to NYU, BU, etc. You won't pay any more than you would at a public institution). Good colleges in great cities generally don't offer merit aid because they don't have to.

Mr. UT Austin would save $140,000 over 4 years. That's pretax income. That would pay for a lot of summers in New York City, In fact, it would probably cover several years in New York City after graduation!

Once again, I am in favor of thinking through the border issues. For college, this would involve separating location from education. If you are massively wealthy, it matters not a whit. If the college in Boston costs the same as the one in a tiny Louisiana town far from anything cultural, then it doesn't matter either. But if it does matter, think about the consequences both of crossing borders and of not crossing borders. Besides, I've heard that Austin, Texas is a great town.


Seth said...

Austin IS a pretty neat town. Several of my friends from college have moved there since, and I should really go visit more often. They have great dog parks.

Honestly, it may be the only place in Texas that I would consider living.

Duchesse said...

I'd add several considerations:
1. The college is on your resumé forever. Status counts, more to some people than others. I have a friend who went to Harvard, and that credential has carried him much farther than a degree almost anywhere else. The contacts he made over those four years (students and faculty) have been priceless to him over the last 30 years.

2.Consider the cultural opportunities within a school, as well as the cultural milieu in the city where you study. Living there is very different than being a summertime tourist. I fall on my knees and beg my college-bound friends here in Canada to not spend four of the best years of life in the toilet that is Kingston Ontario when they could be in Montreal, unless there is a program that is absolutely superior in the (far) inferior location.

I believe one can get a great education in any number of colleges. At the same time, it is not simply a numbers decision.

Suzy said...

It depends on the career too I think - some colleges carry more oomph in certain circles. But if the only reason for attending a higher priced college is the fact that you just like the city better then I agree it's not very practical.

Seth, I've been wanting to take my dogs to some of the dog parks in Austin (we're in Houston) We have parks here but the scenery is so much prettier in the Austin area.

Frugal Scholar said...

@Seth--I'm dying to go to Austin. I love San Antonio and wouold love to live there.

@Duchesse--Yes to the resume, but, apart from HYPS (Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford--and mebbe Columbia), you would be surprised at how little name recognition there is. Also, there is no shame in going to the state u with loads of merit scholarships to put on your resume.

It is a complex issue. I'm saying that one should think the whole thing through, rather than just succumb to convention.

@Suzy--I lived in Houston for a wonderful year when I had a temp job in your prestigious university. I now teach at an un-prestigious university and have learned a lot by seeing our good students get into professional schools--med, law, and so on.

Suzy said...

hee hee which is our prestigious university?! :-) If I were teaching I'd prefer a smaller university or even a 2 yr college I think..too much politic-ing at the prestigious places I think. I went to Kilgore College up in east Texas then finished at A&M and the years at Kilgore were much better. If I hadn't had to plan so far in advance I probably would have gone to SFA in Nacogdoches instead of A&M..

Frugal Scholar said...

@Suzy--I think Rice University, where I taught for a single year, would be upset that you didn't immediately identify it as Prestige U.

Suzy said...

Sorry..Rice came to mind after I posted! I kept thinking UH? What's prestigious about that?! :-) oh well I guess they can just be upset!

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