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Thursday, June 11, 2009

Paradox of Choice, Reed College, Tote Bags

I seem to specialize in bizarre juxtapositions as in the above title. As I mentioned yesterday, reading about my alma mater--Reed College--precipitated a minor stress attack. First of all, as I also mentioned, Reed is a college that inspires conflicting and conflicted emotions. Second, my realization that it would be madness for me to even think of sending my children to Reed made me feel like a failure as, not so much a parent, but as an earner. Truly, it is a head vs. heart kind of thing. In my head, I know that you can get a fine education anywhere (as well as a bad one); in my heart, I have a soft spot for a handful of fine liberal arts colleges.

But then there is the paradox of choice, which I've mentioned before. This is the title of a best-selling book by a professor at Swarthmore. This is one of those books that--sorry--you don't really need to read; the title tells the story. Too much choice is stress-inducing. I read an essay in, I think, the Wall Street Journal about a student who applied to 18 colleges, including Ivies, got into all of them, and was so flummoxed by her choices that she took a gap year. I found this pretty amusing: a student could not decide among loads of fine choices (at $50,000/year) and so took an expensive (I think it was $30,000) gap year trip that included "service." Total self- and over-indulgence as far as I'm concerned.

With both my children, I guess you could say that we minimized the paradox of choice by using as a criterion total cost. So perhaps it was good that money was an object for our family. I had a friend in college who was from a very wealthy family. We once went shopping and I gaped in shock as I watched her pick out a few items and take them to the cash register. Only when she was paying did she look to see how much the items cost. I remember thinking: "How can she choose when she can have anything?"

And, for a screeching transition, that's why I like Goodwill and thrift stores generally. Most of the stuff is awful. There are only a few nice items on any given day, thereby minimizing the paradox of choice.

Today, as is my wont, I took a spin to Goodwill for some stress relief. My faithful readers know that I have been mulling over a tote bag to carry my papers and books. So many choices! I wrote about how, even if I limited myself to LL Bean totes, I would have the color choice (so many!) AND the free monogram choice, etc. etc. Today at Goodwill I came upon two LL Bean totes, both new, both in natural canvas, size medium, short handles. One had lime green handles; one had red. Like all the other bags, these were $1.99.

Both also were monogrammed: AEB, EMP. When I was in dire graduate school poverty, I worked in a vintage clothing store, where I met some talented and eccentric people. One was Gail, who, sadly, never realized her dream of designing costumes for the theater. Her theory was that monogramming was only interesting if the initials weren't yours. As of today, I have adopted her theory. I don't like my initials. Each bag has one of my initials (those of you who like puzzles can figure out which it is).

So until I find the perfect tote bag, I now have 2 LL Bean totes, and the little Longchamp bag I found last week. All these are so useful that I will keep them even after (if?) I find my ideal.

Perhaps that is true too of college choices. One thing my son (now finished with his sophomore year) is that all his friends are happy with their college choices. Isn't that great?


Duchesse said...

The Swarthmore prof you refer to in your posts is Barry Schwartz. He has some useful steps for a making good decisions; see the Wikipedia page "The Paradox of Choice". Might have helped the young woman who took the gap year.

Another rather costly phenom I see is the "victory lap" year, a year beyond the four year BA to earn a double major, because one could not decide. This does not count toward a graduate degree.

Apparently the term is applied to high school too. I told my kids the same thing dad told me, "You have four years to get that (undergrad) degree."

Duchesse said...

PS: You can see Barry Schwartz lecture on the paradox of choice on YouTube.

Funny about Money said...

w00t! L.L. Bean totes! How swell...I use Trader Joe's. Great canvas--they don't shrink or fall apart when you wash them.

Wow. Just think of that. A year-long Grand Tour costs less than nine months at a tony college.

By the time my son finished high school, I was working for the Great Desert University and could have sent him to the University of Arizona, a halfway decent school, with a full tuition waiver. My ex-, who was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy at the time, would hear nothing of it.

Even though the kid was not the greatest student in the world, nothing would do but what he had to go to a private liberal-arts college. He ended up at The Colorado College, where he did just OK, became involved with a girl given to sc**ing everything in pants and dancing on bar countertops, narrowly escaped arrest when one of his "friends" secreted dope in the car during a drive home (they got stopped for speeding and the cop found her stash of 'shrooms), and came away utterly without direction.

He's still pretty much directionless. IMHO, he would have been better off at the UofA...or at least, no worse off. And it wouldn't have cost $120,000 for him to get a degree in a subject that doesn't interest him and that does nothing to help him get a decent job. Since he never was and never will be a networker, the advantage of the social connections one makes in a school like CC was lost on him.

Sending him to a private college was purely an ego trip on his father's part. Status symbols of a certain kind really matter to this guy.

Most kids will do just as well in a good public university, some of which rival the Ivies in quality. A really excellent student will thrive, because public schools fall all over themselves to get the better students. In a state like Arizona, where public education is underfunded and it shows, a mediocre student who has been to private primary and secondary schools will look very good, indeed, next to graduates of public schools, and will come out a public university with straight A's instead of a B average. In my son's case, that would have gone a long way to shore up his self-confidence and might even have helped him find some direction in his life.

And IMHO he would have been a LOT better off with classmates who came from the real world, rather than people who have so much money they don't know what to do with it.

The kid with the dope had her first wedding in Tahiti, where she invited all her college friends to join the festivities. Most of them -- my son not included -- were able to accept.

Not that she was without her own entrepreneurial resources, btw. The reason she was carrying the 'shrooms (some of which she fed to my son's dog--the cop failed to find it all) was that 'shrooms were selling for more in Phoenix than they were in Colorado Springs, and grass was cheap in Phoenix but dear in the Springs. Her plan was to sell the 'shrooms here, buy a bunch of grass, schlep it back to the Springs, and sell it for a nice profit there.

Money will buy your kids the most interesting friends!

Frugal Scholar said...

@Duchesse--Thanks for the youtube lead. You are so right about the 5th year--students change majors, pile on minors--all the while living on loans.

@Funny--My husband grew up in Pasadena, site of the first Trader Joe's. I wish they would open one here. Thanks for the wise words on college choices. Colorado College is always on lists of great liberal arts colleges.

Duchesse said...

In the cases I know of, the their parents were very willing to spend.

Their position was "any education is good". This is an attitude you can take if money is not a concern. I have afar more utilitarian view of education.

Frugal Scholar said...

@Duchesse--At least it was w/out loans! I have students who stay in school to delay the inevitable. I am still very idealistic about education--that's probably good b/c I am a teacher.