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Monday, March 7, 2011

College Debt Once More: Worth It?

I haven't written on this topic for a while. Then I got a comment on an oldish post. Rather than answer there, where it will languish in obscurity, I thought I would appeal to my readers for some more responses. From Alyssa:

Though the debt is daunting, as a senior in high school hoping to major in Anthro and Archaeo with an acceptance into Oxford (which will only give me a scholarship if I'm from a third world country) tucked under my belt, it seems worth it. However, struck by the thought of so much debt (with the current $ to pound exchange rate the tuition + room + board + extra expenses is about $43,000 (25000 pounds)) my parents forced me to apply to UIC. UIC does NOT have an archaeology program, only an anthropology one. Trying to explain to my parents (who did not go to college during the worst bubble for higher education in history) that debt may be my only viable option for succeeding in my major (compare UIC's lack of an Archaeo program to Oxford tons of onsite excavations and 6 world renowned museums) is near impossible.

For the average student, debt is horrendous. Humanities and Social Science majors on average do not make enough to cover for such costs, but ironically, theirs are the majors that are dependent on the school's resources the most. So when is it worth it? Pay the extra when you have a degree that pays off, but when you didn't really need to pay the extra? Working part time to pay off $130,000 (3 years at Oxford) doesn't frighten me as much as going to a school with a 54% graduation rate just to commit an act of "financial responsibility" does. Though the maxim "a good student does well anywhere" may be true, anyone who has seen a public high school juxtaposed against a magnet high school can attest that such "good students" are still limited by the opportunities within their environment, no matter how gifted they are.

Some of my thoughts.

--Many students don't end up doing anything directly related to their majors. Archeologists: jobs in academics, museums, what else? How do you KNOW this is what you want to do?
--Why UIC? Is that University of Illinois at Chicago? A while back, Stanley Fish was Dean there and did some pretty fancy hiring. In fact, I read that the quality of faculty far exceeded the quality of students! So it may not be such a bad option. I'm sure many students go to grad school in archeology with anthropology degrees.

--What about University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana? That's the flagship?

--Here is my favorite. As a frugal gal, I try to think of OTHER WAYS TO GET WHAT I WANT. So, why not go to a state school and DO AN EXCHANGE PROGRAM AT OXFORD or similar? It should be better known, but, in exchange programs, you often PAY THE FEES OF YOUR HOME INSTITUTION. My son spent a year in France. The Americans from private schools paid $30,000-$50,000; the Americans from state schools paid their in-state fees. FOR THE SAME PROGRAM. In fact, I would check on the exchanges available from state schools before making a decision.

--Summers. With the money you save by going to a state school, you can do summer archeology programs. My cousin leads such programs in Israel and Turkey from his state school in NJ. You could go to Greece too!

Any other thoughts, Dear Readers?


Alyssa said...

Your comment about the UIC (yes, University of Illinois at Chicago)faculty is admittedly heartening. We live in Chicago and that's why my parents are rather interested in my going there. The main benefit of UIC is that with all of the AP credits I have accumulated in History courses, I'm pretty sure I have enough credits to get my Bachelors in History in 2 years at a much lower price than my Archaeology with Anthropology bachelors from Oxford in 3. I am entirely in agreement that Grad school is more important than undergrad (as mentioned in someone's earlier post) however I worry that my chances for acceptance into a prestigious grad school are hindered if I lower my standards for undergrad. Transfer programs are probably my best option if I am forced to choose UIC.

Marcela said...

My best friend is an archaeologist. She studied her BA in History because there was no Archaeology in Cordoba, my city, worked with the Archaeology department for 5 years and then did an MA in Anthropology (which was the formation that she was actually lacking). After that, she got her Phd in Anthropology and Archaeology. Most leading archeologists in Argentina, who have done incredibly important work in Human Rights (digging the common graves of the times of the Junta) and who have created the Center for Forensic Anthropology (which trained personnel to work in Rwanda, the Balkans, Cyprus, Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast and other war-torn countries)were in fact Anthropology majors as undergraduates.
I know it is hard to believe that without the big name degree you will make it, but trust me, it is not only about where you graduate from, but also about what you want to do with your degree and how passionate you are about your goals. I would second Frugal in advising you to chose the debt free university (or lower debt university) because that will give you the freedom to pursue other extracurricular activities that will, in the end, make the difference.
But that's just my humble opinion.

Anonymous said...

Do *you* want to live in Chicago? Then did you consider University of Chicago? They may give you a better financial aid package, and although they don't appear to have an undergrad major in archeology, they do have a good graduate program and would be able to make recommendations. (At least consider talking to their undergrad anthro coordinator--they may be able to give you better advice about school quality!)

Or if the public option is the part that appeals to you, did you consider UIUC is supposed to be quite good, as is Wisconsin (no reciprocity but you can probably get a scholarship or tuition reduction for being from Illinois), and they are both within a couple of hours' drive?

And there are exchange options outside of your own university, e.g. through Oxford Study Abroad. More important is probably to get involved in summer fieldwork or research--to show grad schools you are serious and to make sure you know what you want.

AOL is doing something weird to my login, sad to say. )8

--Mixed Strategy

Alyssa said...

Yes I have applied to U of C as well (decision from them in April) and though they may offer me more financial aid, their ticket price is much higher than Oxford's for not having my degree. Where as Oxford is 43K on a bad floating exchange day, U of C is a hard-to-swallow 57K all the time.

Though UI Urbana Champagne is also a good college, my choices have run thin because unless I want to take a year off, their application deadlines have long passed. Right now I'm simply filing away many small "portable" scholarships in hopes to lower my debt wherever I go.

Anonymous said...

One thing I have learned over the years is that college deadlines are rarely as firm as they seem, especially if you are polite about it. Give them a phone call or an email first if that makes you feel better.

Anonymous said...

GO TO NIU! I don't know if their anthro and archaeology departments are still good but back in day when I was considering such fields (and I'm not *that* old), they were really top top quality. So unless there's been a mass exodus of some sort they should still have some famous people.

If NIU is anything like the state school I'm at now, there's still time to apply for fall with rolling admissions.

It's not like UIC is the only state school in Illinois and you might be surprised by the amount of financial aid you get from the various schools, especially if you're good enough to get into Oxford. Plus most of the Illinois schools are in low cost of living areas, so living expenses shouldn't cripple you.

The directional schools in IL tend to specialize, so I would do a bit more research into which is the one that best fits your interests. It may or may not be UIUC.

UIC has some problems in that the top scholars they have don't actually do much teaching. They have kind of dual-class professors... super stars who don't teach much at all and the grunts who do a lot of teaching.

I think the general idea in IL is still that UIUC is the best and UIC and NIU are tied for next best, then SIUC, then SIUE, then WIU/EIU etc. But depending on what you want to do that order will be different since some are better in different programs than in others.

Anonymous said...

p.s. Here's the BLS Occupational handbook with info on employment for archaeologists and anthropologists:

It may help you to think about how much debt to take on. Note that average salary is not the same as starting salary. has some more info on predicted job outlooks.

Duchesse said...

IIf you want to incur the debt, do so, without blame or rancour toward your parents, now or at any time in the future.

Sometimes, though, the school's reputation is not the most important criterion. It is whether you can summon the passion and sheer hard work. A fired up student can make a good program sing, and a lonely, poor and worried student cannot take advantage of a prestigious faculty. Not saying this is you, Alyssa, but your success is not solely determined by the faculty.

Weird: my word verification is slogless.

Anonymous said...

It's looking like it is very common for anthropology to be the major for U.S. archeologists. So maybe you are limiting your options unnecessarily. Have you read the professional materials put out in your field? e.g.

kathleencar said...

I'm another academic (very familiar with the university system in Illinois) and I'm 100 percent with Frugal. Here's how to play the game:

1) Take on no debt if you can help it--debt will make your grad school life MUCH more difficult than a lesser name degree will;

2) During your first month in school, visit people in the anthropology department and *hound* them until someone takes you on as a research assistant (you might even get paid!);

3) Take a foreign language and take it seriously. Apply for a U.S. State Department grant for funding for immersion learning (yes, such grants exist).

4) Find out when the Chicago area undergraduate research symposium is held and participate as a volunteer in your first year and a presenter later on.

5) Apply for funding for summer programs that will pay for you to do research or other work in your field. Get faculty mentors to look out for opportunities to send your way. Faculty will often go all out for students who make it clear that they are really serious.

6) Tutor other students and save every dime that you can.

7) Learn who the living experts in your field are, read their articles, and when you have questions, e-mail them (get coaching on how to do this from a faculty mentor) to build relationships with them;

8) Subscribe to a journal in your field and learn the writing style. Look for opportunities to write and publish with faculty mentors or independently;

9) Keep this up until you are a senior and then apply for a PhD program where you will get stipends and teaching assistantships that will pay you to get the kind of depth training you want and need.

I've seen students do this and get into the top schools in their fields--and enjoy their undergrad educations *much* more than they would otherwise. If you do that, your undergrad education at UIC will turn out to have been more valuable than your Oxford degree--I guarantee it.

Good luck!

Alyssa said...

I love your advice Kathleencar -- super specific and helpful! But, though Oxford has the debt, if I follows those very steps you just suggested AT Oxford, would I not be more likely to receive higher returns considering the closer to campus opportunities for hands-on experience and the fact that the experts in my field would be my professors/tutors?

kathleencar said...

It's true that the Oxford program will probably be designed to give you something like what I just outlined. But keep in mind that you'll be competing with a lot of other students who will want exactly the same thing. At UIC it's less likely that they will have the same number of really driven students with such high expectations--and that can mean that you'll get a whole lot more in the way of faculty attention and backing than you might get in elsewhere.

But there's a simple way to find this out: Arrange a visit with UIC's anthropology department and talk to people about a game plan that would have you working as a research assistant, etc. If they say "No way, never," well, that tells you something. But every department wants its star students, and I think it much more likely that they'll think of you as someone who could help them look good and demonstrate that they can produce real scholars. In any case, it won't hurt you to talk to them.

Hope that helps!

Alyssa said...

That's a really great idea actually! My AP Biology teacher has been trying to set me up with the head of their Anthro program for a while, so that may work out! The nice thing about Oxford though (I know I sound like a broken record, it's just so hard not to be impressed by them) is that their tutor system is 1 on 1 with a PhD in my major once a week along with lecture halls. And only 2 Anthropology Archaeology majors are accepted into my Oxford college per annum (22 university wide) so the pool isn't really all that large.

kathleencar said...

It's a difficult decision and I sympathize with your desire to go away to college (I did). The main thing that I would consider in your shoes is whether the debt I had taken on for undergraduate study might mean that I could not take the job that I loved when I graduated simply because I had to take the job that paid more--just to pay off my bills.

So it's a tough call. Good luck!

Tracy Bee said...

My parents also steered me to a regional college not of my choosing -- one that carried a substantial scholarship and was within driving distance. I planned to transfer to my state's flagship university after two years, but changed my mind because of the opportunities available to the moderately ambitious and the relationships I had with faculty and staff. During my undergraduate years, I edited a magazine, co-edited a literary journal, and attended my school's summer writers' workshop, at which I worked with nationally-known writers. Excellent letters of recommendations from actual faculty members (not graduate students) helped me get a Fulbright and entrance to graduate school at the flagship -- where I paid in-state tuition for a Master's degree. My lack of undergraduate debt was an amazing gift that allowed me to travel the world and buy a house on my own at the age of 29.

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Frugal Scholar said...

@all--Thanks so much for generously offering your wisdom to Alyssa. Would love to hear what she's doing!

@marcela--Thanks for reminding us that academic training can go far, far beyond academics. What a moving comment.

Alyssa said...

Thanks to all for your help. I'm super appreciative of the Bureau of Labor Statistics info too. Right now i'm just applying for many mobile scholarships. If I am able to bring the Oxford tuition down even a little, I would take that or the University of Edinburgh ($25,000 aka 17000 pounds) over UIC any day. I have been told by many that undergrad doesn't matter, however it CAN matter if I really use all of my resources to my advantage. Oxford has too much to offer me specifically for me to turn it down without a fight.