(This post is part of the series on postsecondary education.)
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I spent a number of previous posts in this series discussing the purpose and scope of postsecondary education, the responsibilities that parents and their young-adult children have toward each other, and alternatives to going the "traditional" route.
Now I want to turn to exploring the price, value, and cost of an education.
They aren't the same, of course.
- "Price" is a measure of dollars paid to an institution -- either a total, or a per-year or per-credit-hour rate.
- "Value" is a measure of benefits gained.
- "Cost" includes price as well as expenditures of time and effort, and other benefits that are foregone in order to obtain the education.
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I first thought I would consider the case of families who are wealthy enough that they could easily pay for just about any education that a student could want -- so stinkin' rich that all the kids could languish in private schools for years and still never come close to making a dent in the retirement nest egg or affecting anyone's lifestyle.
Of course, these folks are rare, and I doubt any of my readers are among them. So why start there? Simple -- it lets me remove one constraint, a very constraining one. Removing constraints by fiat (or at least by "what if?" is a fun way to see a new side of a problem. And even if what results is a Very Special Problem, you still might find a principle in there that can be generalized. It is sort of like assuming a frictionless surface in your physics class.
The first thing I did is go Googling around to look for opinions about whether rich people ought to pay for their children's college educations, or whether they ought to make the young person work for some of the money. I was particularly interested in whether the answer varies with household income.
But I was immediately sidetracked by an extraordinary large volume of discussion about P. Diddy and his son. It seems that back in June -- well, let's let the LA Times tell the tale:
Google is full of titles like "Should rich kids get scholarships??" and "Should kids of the ultra-rich be ineligible for college scholarships?" and just as many answers ranging from "He earned it, he deserves it" to "HELL NO not as long as there is a poor kid who needs the money more."
For the purposes of the discussion, it doesn't matter whether we're talking about academic scholarships handed out to kids with good grades and test scores, or whether we're talking about athletic scholarships handed out to kids with skill and grace and confidence on court or field. Let's call both kinds "merit" scholarships to distinguish them from "need-based" scholarships.
I do not think many people get the purpose that these merit scholarships serve.
Universities do not offer merit scholarships in order to reward hardworking or smart high school students for being hardworking and smart.
Neither do universities hand them out because they are good institutions and they wish to recognize deserving good people.
(If that was the point of merit scholarships -- to reward merit -- why not give away no-strings-attached cash awards, instead of tuition at their own institutions?)
Full disclosure: I fell for that line back in 1992 when I was a high school senior weighing multiple scholarship offers. I really didn't think to question why someone wanted to give me a pile of money! All the adults around me were saying "Congratulations! You earned it!" and I believed them. This was not a belief that turned out to be good for me overall (although the money was sure nice).
But even if the age of print advertising failed to get it across way back then, the age of Internet media and the like should have rammed it home: when someone wants to provide you a service for free, chances are good that his real product is YOU and his real service is selling YOU to someone else for money.
We get to use Facebook for free because the owners are rewarding us for all our wonderful attributes, right? Heck no: the owners are selling our eyeballs to advertisers. And smart kids and good football players go to college for free because they've worked hard and earned it, right? Heck no: football players put butts in the seats and sell licensed merchandising, and the smart kids look good in the glossy charts describing the statistics of the student body population. Colleges routinely brag about how many National Merit scholars they capture, and test scores/GPA of the entering classes are a big part of the U.S. News college rankings which exert so much power over a school's admissions policies.
Few people "earn" scholarships. "Win" is a better word; but "earn" is reserved for things you have a right to, like your wages. Universities have to distribute merit scholarships with some appearance of fairness, but otherwise they don't have to offer them to anyone. If you are number 20 on the list at Big State U, whether you get a scholarship depends on whether Big State U decides to hand out more than 19 this year -- it is out of your hands -- so it can't be something you "earned" because they don't have to give it to you. You have given them nothing in return. They offer it up front in the hopes that, having been enticed to attend the school, you will improve their bottom line somehow (whether it be by rankings, or by football wins, or by demonstrating compliance with Title IX, or by enhancing their student body diversity, or some other measure the University cares about).
Universities offer scholarships because it suits them, and because they are competing with other universities for the high school seniors who will make their numbers look good. What will happen if the university takes away a rich high-scoring kid's scholarship and gives it to a low-income, slightly-lower-scoring kid because he needs the money more, or because a low-income kid with a good score has demonstrated more "merit" than a rich kid with a good score? It will only result in the high-scoring kid going somewhere else and the school's average admissions score going down ever so slightly. This does not help the university's ranking, nor the bottom line. That will not change until U.S. News and World Report starts boosting universities' rankings based on the number of low-income kids who go there and succeed.
Organizations do exist to give scholarships to aspiring postsecondary students who are at risk because they lack funds to attend school, or to provide incentives and rewards that recognize academic achievement or encourage study in particular fields. Most of these organizations are small ones, offering small amounts. (I help operate a very, very small one: a yearly scholarship offered in memory of my mother in the school district where she taught kindergarten for many years. The money literally comes out of the pockets of Mom's family and friends. It's about enough to pay for textbooks and supplies for one semester.)
Local and state governments also offer scholarships to promote the interests of their communities: to stop a brain drain, or to create positive incentives for at-risk youth, or to encourage study in some industry that is economically important to the area.
Both of these are fine things. But let's not pretend that the universities have the same motives.
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More on the "But what if you were really really rich?" question next time.