Is College Worth the Cash?

Don’t send your kids to a status symbol says journalist Claudia Dreifus.

By Lynn Sherr
Photograph: Illustration: Kagan McLeod

As millions of mothers brace themselves—and their kids—for the fiercely competitive gauntlet of admission to the country’s top-ranked schools, journalist Claudia Dreifus has startling advice: “Don’t send your kids to a status symbol. That’s what an Ivy League undergraduate education often is. At Yale and Harvard, undergraduate teaching is too often an afterthought; at the University of Pennsylvania, the classes can be as large as at many public universities. You’re really paying for the name.”

Controversial words from a writer for the New York Times who teaches a graduate course in media at Columbia University. In her new book, Higher Education? How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids—and What We Can Do About It, Dreifus and her coauthor, Andrew Hacker, a veteran political science professor at New York’s Queens College, charge that America’s 4,400-plus undergraduate schools “hold a monopoly on kids’ futures that is immune to all the basic economic laws that govern the rest of society, including the laws of the marketplace.”

Her argument: The schools are too expensive and don’t deliver on their promise to educate young people. At some, the total bill (for tuition, room and board, and extras) has ballooned to $250,000 for four years. “Most families cannot afford that, incurring indebtedness that shackles their future,” she says, adding that the similarity of tuition costs at colleges across the country “would make an antitrust lawyer salivate.” Most of that money, she says, is going not into better teaching but rather into “institutional growth, empire building and full-time pay and perks.”

Dreifus and Hacker, who are domestic as well as writing partners, visited some 100 campuses to examine this “mutant sector of the economy,” which Dreifus discovered while teaching in the early 1990s. I asked her to elaborate.

Why do you think a Harvard education may not be worth it?
First, it’s overpriced. Harvard has just raised its fee to over $50,000 a year, and that will trigger a cycle of increases throughout the system because Harvard sets the trend. Harvard says it’s raising the number of scholarships, and that’s well and good, but the overall effect of the tuition hikes on the rest of the system is thoroughly immoral—most schools are not nearly as well endowed and can’t award as much financial aid. I believe that the elite universities we call the Golden Dozen—Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Dartmouth, Penn, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Stanford, Duke, Amherst, Williams—are, for the most part, overpriced prestige items.

But they have great faculty.

Over 70 percent of college teachers—even at top schools like Yale, Harvard and Stanford—are graduate students or adjuncts or gypsy visiting professors. That’s up from 43 percent in 1975. There are 181,000 teaching assistants at work in 280 research universities around the country. And it’s not just the elite colleges. Florida Keys Community College, for instance, has 24 full-time faculty and about 90 adjuncts per term. Using a contingent workforce costs the schools much less money. At Yale, for example, teaching assistants earn roughly $20,000 a year.

So the students are not taught by the stars?
Rarely. And this bothers me, because you’re cheating the young people.

Where are the adjuncts coming from?
Universities are overproducing PhDs way beyond levels anyone can use in this country. From 2005 to 2007, they awarded 101,000 doctoral degrees—but there were only 16,000 new assistant professorships created.

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