Sunday, April 13, 2008

Affordable College: Just around the Corner

My educational career -- as with so many facets of my life -- is full of starts, stops, and direction changes.

At the end of the day, I am very happy about where I sit professionally, so those fits and starts were worth it. Garth Brooks sings a song with the line, "Some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers."

I'm not sure about all that, but I do believe in the sentiment. We're often better off for not having gotten what we originally wanted -- especially if we are able to use the process as a learning experience.

Reading today's New York Times online, I ran across a story titled, "Fewer Options Open to Pay for Costs of College."

The story caused me to reflect upon my own education, which has spanned from community colleges to the Ivy League. I started college as a pre-medical student, and I ended with a joint Ph.D. in mass communications and cognitive science from a Big Ten research university (Indiana). The journey has been anything but linear.

After I was done with high school (itself a tale for another day), I worked at my family's advertising agency in Kansas City for a time before college. I was also part of another brief family business venture. Then one day, I decided it was time for college.

Close to two decades have passed since that day, but I can remember driving down a particular stretch of highway talking it over with then-girlfriend, now-wife, Emily. As she has always been, she was supportive.

I wanted to attend the University of Kansas, but the admissions deadline for Fall 1991 already had passed. So I enrolled at Johnson County (Kan.) Community College.

As with so many happenstance events in my life, luck followed me to JCCC. It's one of the top community colleges in the country, and I cannot imagine a better first semester in college. Rather than massive lecture halls, I took introductory courses in small groups with dedicated teachers.

Early in spring semester 1992, my dad was offered -- and accepted -- a new job in Phoenix, Arizona. That July we moved to Phoenix. Once again, my timing was off, and Emily and I had missed the deadline to apply to Arizona State University.

It took a little bit of searching (remember no Internet then), but we discovered that Paradise Valley Community College was a little more than 4 miles from our north Scottsdale home, whereas ASU was more than 15 miles away. In addition, tuition was half price at PVCC.

Although we intended to transfer after a year, we simply enjoyed PVCC too much to leave. We had great instructors, the campus was brand-new, and we didn't seem to miss the big-time athletics typical of universities such as Indiana, where I would eventually earn my doctorate.

We completed the first two years of our undergraduate education with no class more than (I estimate from memory) 29 other students. Many of our instructors were still working on their doctorates, but they seemed genuinely interested in teaching. I never once sensed that I was an obligation keeping a professor away from research.

During these two years, Emily and I paid the bulk of our own tuition, and we did so with minimal student loans. I got at least one scholarship along the way, and there probably would have been more had we taken time to apply.

Fast forward to Fall 2001 when I started doctoral work at Cornell University, one of eight Ivy League universities. I took one joint seminar in psychology that mixed graduate students and upper-division undergraduates. So I got a first-hand peek at Ivy League undergraduate education.

I no longer have exact numbers, but tuition at Cornell was dozens of times greater than Paradise Valley. Yet there is no way that the education was dozens of times better. In many cases -- especially large lecture halls -- it surely was worse.

Yet the Ivy Leagues remain the gold standard, and two-year colleges are the pariah of higher education. If you open almost any issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, you will find some variation of an article addressing this status difference of two-year schools.

To me it seems ludicrous to read that article in the same week that the New York Times talks about the difficulties paying for education.

I am a professor at Texas Tech University. Thus I have some vested interested in recruitment to Tech. But I would have a difficult time encouraging a high school senior to attend a university of this size (nothing about Tech in particular).

If you want to be a famous academic, then it would really behoove you to study with the top researchers in the field. This is most easily accomplished at the Ivy League schools, but top public institutions, such as University of Texas and The Ohio State University also have more top scholars than mid-size universities.

You get what you pay for. Tuition at OSU is close to double Tech's rate. So does this position the mid-size four-year university (such as Tech) as the bargain choice? No. Because 360 miles southwest of here lies New Mexico State University, where Emily and I eventually earned our bachelor's degrees. Tuition there is about half what it is here.

And your neighborhood community college tuition is about half of NMSU.

The main difference between Tech and NMSU? Tech's football team wins more often. And sadly -- and without realizing it -- this is how too many high school students choose a university.

Murray Sperber outlines this case brilliantly in the book, Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports is Crippling Undergraduate Education.

I attended two of the better community colleges in the nation. Both were a result of missed deadlines. But both were great choices. My wife and I got excellent educations, and we did so with a minimum of student loan debt (that came from graduate school).

I feel for families who struggle to pay for college. This may be a real concern for me one day, as I have four kids. But perhaps I worry more for the family who goes into massive debt for 6 Saturdays in the fall, when Junior can watch the home team. Because undergraduate education need not necessarily be tied to Beer and Circus.

Instead affordable education -- and small class size -- is probably just around the corner. Sure, the Greek life will suffer, and the student union probably is a bit smaller. But you'll save thousands and probably learn more. And I think that is supposed to be the goal.

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Blogger Tim Laubacher said...

"Learning" is a wide-ranging term. Although I may have saved money and had smaller class sizes at other colleges, somehow I think I learned the things I was lacking coming out of high school by going to Ohio State University.

But, each person has to make a choice for him/herself.

1:34 PM  
Blogger Samuel D. Bradley said...

But didn't you turn down a tennis scholarship elsewhere to go to OSU?

I think that is my point exactly. People make a lot of decisions -- and pay a lot of money -- based upon football.

And that's just not a rational strategy.

4:52 PM  
Blogger Tim Laubacher said...

I turned down a bigger scholarship at U. of Toledo where I would have pursued engineering. However, the OSU decision came down to knowing that if I fell out of love with engineering/physics, I'd have a wide variety of other majors to choose from.

The tennis opportunity would have been only about 15 minutes from home, and I wanted the opportunity to go live on a campus.

I agree with what you said about going through many ups and downs throughout college and not knowing which missed opportunities are actually for the better. Had I gone to play tennis at a local school, maybe I wouldn't have learned as much about myself as I did on OSU's campus (or maybe I would have). Going to Toledo, maybe I'd have forced myself to stick with engineering due to the lack of options. Instead, I went to OSU and saw opportunity in Mass Communication when my excitement for physics fell apart.

Certainly picking a school for the football program is not a good idea unless you happen to play football, but I think Saturdays at OSU were just part of the experience.

7:42 PM  
Blogger Jessica said...

I just looked up this post to show Joe, per a discussion we are having. I agreed with it when you wrote it, and I definitely agree with it now. I just looked at the cost of UT-Arlington in 2001-02, when I started, vs. now. The cost of 12 hours, a typical full course load, in 2001-02 was $1,534.20. Today, for 12 hours, the cost is $4,250. It is absurd. And, as I understand it, much of that tuition increase has gone to pay for things such as a new special events center and recreation facility. Totally what you need in an economic crisis.

3:02 AM  

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