Response to “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League” by William Deresiewicz

This is to a response to this article : Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League

I swing wildly on this pendulum daily, between contemplating how the things I’m doing are not enriching my soul enough and contemplating that my financial future is not secure enough. So I understand a lot of the author’s frustrations with the current tertiary education system.

The following are what I assume the author thinks the elite educational system has created

Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.

It’s unclear whether this criticism is landed against the elite education system or against the children. It seems from his use of the word ‘manufactures’ that this is landed against the educational system. Allow me a lengthy digression before I respond to this comment.

I. ROI of college

The author makes this statement

What no one seems to ask is what the “return” is supposed to be. Is it just about earning more money? Is the only purpose of an education to enable you to get a job? What, in short, is college for?

This is a fair criticism. Going to college should not just be to get a job but let’s consider the following fact as well. The average cost of going to college each year is about 50k including housing, tuition and living expenses, so that’s 200k over 4 years. Using University of Michigan’s website for out-of-state students, one can calculate how much money has to be taken out using extra loans after knowing that the median household income in 2011 was 50k. Under that income bracket, the average student has to cough up 17k more for each year of schooling. Over four years, that’s about 68k in extra loans assuming no assistance from parents.

Let’s just assume that someone gets a 50k salary, which is the median income of a 25+ in America with a bachelor’s degree, even lower for women. Then, I used a take-home pay calculator to calculate actually how much of this money was actually going into my pocket. If you input 50k as single and no dependents on this two respective calculators, you can take home only about 35k a year.

I couldn’t find any very good living cost calculator but I did find this one by MIT. And let’s use the author’s example of Dayton. (Since Dayton’s median household income is the same as the United States’, I didn’t make any adjustments and continued using 43k as the income of our college graduate.) According to this living cost calculator, it costs about 14k to live in Dayton a year. Upon further examination, you see that only $242 dollars was on food per month, which in my opinion is pretty low, since I know going out once a week costs at least about $20 for a meal and a drink. Which leaves only about $242-$100 = $142, which leaves like $5/day left for food. I think that’s a little low so I’m going to increase the food expense per month to about $340 .

$65 reserved for the “Other” category also seems kind of low and that in itself is the price of my telephone bill each month. So again, I would like to increase the expense in the others category by $100 just for other misc expenses like clothing.

I’m also quite skeptical of the transportation cost. It lists $306 per month, and kind of increases linearly with the size of the family. That seems to be kind of strange since the cost of owning a car should be roughly the same regardless of how many people in your family even if you drive more. This news article says $9000 a year so $750 a month, but let’s just say it’s about $600/month.

So all in all, I added $500 extra per month which I think more realistically reflects the cost of living, increasing the cost of living annually from 15k to about 21k.

Subtract this from your take-home pay of about 35k, you are left with only about 14k that you can use to pay for your loans. 68k/14k = 4.8 years. That’s almost 5 years of putting every single dollar that you are not spending into your college loans. 5 years of non-financial independence, not to mention there is no money being saved for emergency purposes.

End of I.

Given this above scenario, I guess one can easily wonder why this young people are “anxious, timid, and lost… heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it”. That’s because if they did anything else that wasn’t “Making partner at a major law firm or becoming a chief executive, climbing the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy you decide to attach yourself to.”, they might be stuck with their student loans until their late 20’s.

I guess you could blame the education system for jacking up the prices of the tuition without consequences. But I do think a college education is the only type of good where we let them get away with increasing tuition every single year because research has indeed shown that on average people who hasa college degree make 50k, 20k  (66%) more than a person who has had only some college who would make 30k.

I’m not saying these elite colleges are free of blame, but to say “Elite colleges are not just powerless to reverse the movement toward a more unequal society; their policies actively promote it.” I think is at least a little uncharitable. In a free market, if one firm gets away with increasing the cost of its goods without decreasing market share, why WOULDN’T it be rational to also increase your prices as well. Maybe the better finger to point at is that the government has to step in and say that there has to be a cap for how much the tuition can rise each year. Maybe the government should make it such that student loans are not the only unforgivable loan in bankruptcy. I think those suggestions are much more constructive than “Colleges should put an end to résumé-stuffing by imposing a limit on the number of extracurriculars that kids can list on their applications.”

The truth, I think is that, America has traded its economic prosperity of today with the futures of its young people.


I will respond to other statements in the article I have issue with:

Look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation. A large-scale survey of college freshmen recently found that self-reports of emotional well-being have fallen to their lowest level in the study’s 25-year history.

Let’s not forget that we are STILL recovering from one of the WORST financial crises that the US economy has seen since the Great Depression. Why does the author think these low levels of “emotional well-being” are attributed to only elite education? In fact, this was a LARGE-SCALE SURVEY OF COLLEGE FRESHMAN not just elite universities so why are you singling these elite universities out. Why are these states of well being not a result of uncertain economic futures and giant student loans waiting for them?

Selecting students by GPA or the number of extracurriculars more often benefits the faithful drudge than the original mind.

I’m totally unsure on what bases he is making this criticism? First of all, what’s bad about a faithful drudge? Don’t we also need people who following rules in this world? Do doctors make up new procedures for every patient? Do judges not follow laws and regulations when making rulings? I don’t understand. Secondly, what’s the relation being GPA and number of ECAs with being a faithful drudge or not? This sounds to be as being a completely unsubstantiated claim.

At least the classes at elite schools are academically rigorous, demanding on their own terms, no? Not necessarily. In the sciences, usually; in other disciplines, not so much. There are exceptions, of course, but professors and students have largely entered into what one observer called a “nonaggression pact.” Students are regarded by the institution as “customers,” people to be pandered to instead of challenged. Professors are rewarded for research, so they want to spend as little time on their classes as they can. The profession’s whole incentive structure is biased against teaching, and the more prestigious the school, the stronger the bias is likely to be. The result is higher marks for shoddier work.

Again, an unsubstantiated claim. Fine, the author was a college professor so he can only speak for his own classes, but still on what basis is he staying that other disciplines are not rigorous? Again, I can only speak for my own education but I have been challenged significantly in my elitist college education.  Perhaps you could use the various reports of grade inflation to substantiate the claim that “The result is higher marks for shoddier work.”, but my criticism against that is that we have to take the data for what it shows. A report on grade inflation shows that the distribution of assigned grades has assigned towards higher letter grades but again there is no causal link between that and shoddy work. I suppose one could assume that the average quality of work is the same ever year, thus a average higher letter grade for the same quality of work; but again I could also point out that with the increase in difficulty of the high school curriculum, could it not be the case that high school students coming into college are more prepared than their predecessors?

College is not the only chance to learn to think, but it is the best. One thing is certain: If you haven’t started by the time you finish your B.A., there’s little likelihood you’ll do it later. That is why an undergraduate experience devoted exclusively to career preparation is four years largely wasted.

Really?! You think people don’t learn to think later in life, I hope this is not true.

The SAT is supposed to measure aptitude, but what it actually measures is parental income, which it tracks quite closely.

Also, what of the ‘language-gap study’ reported here and here that “reinforced the earlier research showing that because professional parents speak so much more to their children, the children hear 30 million more words by age 3 than children from low-income households, early literacy experts, preschool directors and pediatricians said.” and “reinforced the earlier research showing that because professional parents speak so much more to their children, the children hear 30 million more words by age 3 than children from low-income households, early literacy experts, preschool directors and pediatricians said.” (source : NY Times Language-Gap Study Bolsters a Push for Pre-K). Richer students go to better private schools. SAT measures reading comprehension. If the difference at age 3 is 30 million words, can you guess the difference at age 17?

Kids at less prestigious schools are apt to be more interesting, more curious, more open, and far less entitled and competitive.

Simple thought experiment. John had the choice between University of California : Berkley and Brown. He chose UC Berkley for reasons of financial cost. He is instantly “more interesting, more curious, more open, and far less entitled and competitive.” because of this decision he made. Please tell me there is something wrong this statement.

The nation’s top colleges are turning our kids into zombies

If this title is not link-bait, I don’t know what is.


So those are my comments.

I think any article that criticizes such a large system ought to make some well-substantiated claims with numbers and data, which I think would avoid a lot of the questionable claims made in the article. As for his suggestion on how to change this mess,

High-quality public education, financed with public money, for the benefit of all: the exact commitment that drove the growth of public higher education in the postwar years.

Well, if you remember in 2008 and 2009, some states were bankrupt and some public universities couldn’t have enough classes for some people to graduate on time. So I think neither of these are very possible.

But I agree with the author ultimately that “The education system has to act to mitigate the class system, not reproduce it. Affirmative action should be based on class instead of race, a change that many have been advocating for years.”  The author has been trying to address issues of fairness in today’s American society by blaming the elite education system as the culprit, but you as an informed reader really think this is true? What of the unregulated financial industry, the corruption of politics with money, the economic bull run fueled purely by property prices that has benefited only the baby boomers and left nothing else for the next generation.

And what is fairness? We are not in the post-war years anymore, my dear author. USA is no longer the dominant superpower. The whole world is competing against you. What is fairness when there are more honors children (top 25%) 350million in China (population 1.4billion) than the population of USA (313 million). What has changed is that USA no longer has the edge of education. The rest of the world caught up and now they are trying to be competitive. And education has become MORE and MORE important in today’s world, not just any education but HIGH-QUALITY education.

The elite education system has done at least one thing right, hasn’t it? “Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven” Shouldn’t we be trying to instead understand what the elite education system has done right despite these “non-rigorous” courses, then try to apply the same model to the rest of the country. The public sector needs to intervene when it thinks the private sector cannot provide the same goods at the same price and quality. In my opinion, the author sees the trees but misses the forest.


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