Monday, February 28, 2011

College Tour 2011

As I mentioned in a previous note, Mrs. Random Glenings and I spent last week visiting colleges with our daughter Caroline.

Caroline is a high school junior, and a pretty good student, if I do say so myself. She's not exactly sure what she would like to study in college (who does at age 17?) but she's got pretty high ambitions.

We had a great week. We visited Duke; University of North Carolina; University of Virginia; Johns Hopkins; Georgetown; and University of Pennsylvania.

I thought I would share a few impressions, since the whole process is so different than when I went through this process a generation ago.

First, to say that there is strong demand for these elite schools is an understatement. Most schools reported that the total applications that they will receive will number anywhere from 25,000 to 30,000. Of course, I suspect that a large percentage of these applicants are simply sending out dozens of applications to schools, but it means that the overall acceptance rate is around 10% or so.

Second, the facilities at the schools we visited were unbelievably good. In particular, the buildings at places like Hopkins and Duke seemed almost new, despite the fact that the colleges themselves have of course been around for a long time. It's amazing what a multi-billion endowment can do.

Which leads me to my third point: the cost.

Tuitions for these elite schools take your breath away. Duke and Hopkins, for example, estimate the yearly cost to attend their college for a year will be around $56,000 a year. Even a state school like Univerity of Virginia will charge out-of-state students $42,000 a year. Now, to be sure, most schools offer financial aid to most of their students, but still these number still hit home with Caroline's father.

I did a quick calculation of how much tuition costs have risen since I attended the University of Michigan in the 1970's.

I was an out-of-state student at Michigan, so my parents had to pay the "exorbitant" rate of around $5,000 per year.

Tuition today would be 10x this amount, or a compound rate of nearly 7% per annum. This is higher than CPI during the same time period, and is in line with the growth of stock market.

There have been numerous articles written about why college costs so much, so I won't attempt the subject here (although I have attached a link to a recent New York Times piece below). Still, the fact that the universities are able to charge these tuitions and still receive a blizzard of applications would suggest that they are simply charging what the market will bear.

One final point: the overwhelming gender of both the students in the audience and the representatives of the universities was female. I read somewhere that the typical college campus student body is 60% women, but judging from our little tour last week this seems to be on the low side.

On one hand you can argue this is terrific news: women in my mother's generation were discouraged from attending college, and my mother can still relate stories of discrimination.

But it makes me wonder what all the male high school students are thinking. I don't know what the future holds, but I suspect that education in an era where intellectual skills will be more important than physical strength in most areas of our society.