Saturday, March 6, 2021

Gobsmacked? Part II

Knowing how to fill out the forms is important to get into college.  But it doesn't end there.

In my last posting, I was in wonderment at the click-bait article about a young woman who gave up on college when she found the application process too hard.  Probably a good thing for her, as if you really don't want to go to college, not going is always an option.

CNN, not to be outdone by USA Today in terms of click-bait, came out with a companion piece today, this time with the click-bait headline that a young woman has been awarded a MILLION DOLLARS IN SCHOLARSHIPS!   Yes, it is click-bait.  Total click-bait.

But it bears analysis.

She applied to "at least" 20 colleges (which is easy to do these days, as the previous article notes that online application processes can cover over 900 colleges at once).  The TOTAL of scholarships and financial aid offered for the 20 colleges is over a million dollars.   That comes to a paltry $50,000 per college.

I say paltry, as these "scholarships" and incentives are just numbers marked-off an arbitrary retail price number.  It is like going to the car dealer and "saving" $5000 off the list price of a new car (which isn't hard to do).  It doesn't mean you made $5000 or you have $5000 more in your checking account.  It just means you negotiated the price down a bit.  You still have to pay for the car.

And in today's game of inflated tuition rates - and dorm fees which often are even higher (and more profitable for colleges, which are increasingly becoming landlords in a huge adolescent baby-sitting service) fifty grand doesn't go far - it might cover one year's tuition in some schools these days. You still to pay for the other three years, plus living expenses.

So the reality of this article isn't so hot.  The young lady profiled is getting pretty standard offers that any other student with reasonable grades and a good SAT scores would get.  And in today's tightening college market, smaller schools are offering larger and larger discounts to put butts in the seats.

Not as appealing a headline, eh?

But wait, it gets worse - far worse.

The article says she has good grades in Chemistry and Physics, so she wants to get a Psychology degree.  This makes no sense to me - you do good in "hard" science, to you want to get into "soft" science?  Might as well become a sociologist!

Once she makes her final decision, Robinson-Owens hopes to study psychology, as some of her favorite subjects in school have been chemistry and physics. The high schooler also enjoys journalism, she's contributed to her school's news website and podcast. She's also a part of her school's yearbook committee.

The problem with a degree in Psychology is that a Bachelor's degree doesn't really qualify you for much - you pretty much have to go to grad school.  And this is where the costs really escalate.   The schools know you can't go far without that Masters or PhD, so they don't offer as many scholarships for advanced degrees. But Sallie Mae opens the floodgates at this point. For undergraduate degrees, student loans are based on "need" but for graduate degrees, they will loan you as much money as you can stand.

And you have to pay it back.

When you read these horror stories about people with a hundred grand in student loan debt (or more) it usually involves an advanced degree.

So while this article sounds like a counterpoint to the "Hechinger Report" from USA Today, it really is even more of a horror story.  I just hope she doesn't decide to major in journalism.

So what is the answer?   Again, beats me.  I think rather than looking at how much money she can get in financial aid, she should concentrate on bang-for-the-buck as a student consumer. Consider the following factors:

  • How much is the overall cost of the degree or degrees necessary to work in the field?
  • Which school has the best reputation?
  • What other costs, such as room and board are going to be incurred?
  • Are there any work-study programs available to reduce costs and gain experience in the field?
  • Have you talked with someone in the field and asked their opinion?

For example, before I became a Patent Attorney, I sat down with a family friend who was one for 30 years and got the skinny on what to expect.   And you don't need a family friend to do this - most professionals in any field would be happy to spend a half-hour or so giving you the pro's and con's of their line of work, as well as what to expect, what schools are preferred, what salary expectations, and so on and so forth.  Heck, they might even offer you a job.

And that last part is key.  If you can find work, part-time or as an intern, you might find out that you don't want to work in the field of psychology.  Let's face it - you'll be dealing with a lot of crazy people, and not everyone has the patience for such patients.  Working my way through school made me realize not only what I wanted to do in life, but what I didn't want to do.   I am glad, in a way, that I dropped out, as I would have ended up as a plant engineer working in a waste treatment plant somewhere, not that there is anything wrong with that, but it wasn't what I had in mind.  Not only that, I likely would have been laid off, time and again.

I suspect the reality of this young woman's life is not like the article says.  Newspaper articles are horrendously inaccurate and you only realize this when they write an article about something you know about or about you.  They have sensationalized this to make it seem this young woman is starry-eyed about her $1M payday - which of course isn't the case.

I hope the women in both articles do well in life, college or no college, whatever their major.   And I suspect they will.  These articles are click-bait and designed to get people to click.  Thus, they misrepresent what these folks are really like.

Of course, some folks argue the real problem is the staggering cost of college - which makes it hard to make mistakes, drop out, or change your mind.  And in many programs, such as Engineering, 1/3 of the students drop out (including me) over time.   Maybe it is time we really examined why schools are raising tuition at a rate three- to five-times that of inflation.  Or maybe the problem will sort itself out, as the number of high school grads diminishes in coming years - and more and more people start to see college as a poor financial choice.

We'll just have to see.  "Free College" and "Student Loan Forgiveness" sound appealing, but I am not sure a huge give-away is the real answer to anything, nor would it solve the underlying problems of higher education in America.