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Elite Liberal Arts Education: Is it a rip?

Over  at Free Money Finance, FMF and his readers are having a field day excoriating a young woman, one Cortney Munna, and her family for having made the apparently stupid decision to borrow $97,000 to send her to an elite private school, where she took a double major in the liberal arts (religious and women’s studies). With a starting salary after graduation of $46,000—not bad, we might add, for any wet-behind-the-ears kid, even though she’s living in extravagantly pricey San Francisco—she now is looking at a lifetime of student loan payments.

The most generous of FMFs readers suggest that it’s difficult for young people to understand the implications of long-term debt, given the scarcity of practical education in personal finance and budgeting to be found in the public schools, or that the American public is being sold a bill of goods about higher education. Most, however, go in for the kill, ranting about the young woman’s naïveté and her family’s stupidity.

Well, you know… When I was a young thing and wanted a career in nonfiction writing —wanted to be the first female John McPhee—I worked like crazy at it and got published here, there, and everywhere, often in the national markets. And I got a Ph.D. from a state institution. After I’d been banging my head against the steel walls surrounding the top, high-paying U.S. markets, such as The New Yorker and The Atlantic, a fellow named Norman Sims published a book called The Literary Journalists. It was a study of the type of nonfiction I craved to publish, illuminated by selections from a group of authors that included my favorite role models plus a few up-and-comers.

The headnote for each article included some biographical details about the author. As I leafed through the book, I realized that an awful lot of those folks had gone to Ivy League or “public ivy” schools: Princeton, Berkeley, Yale, Vassar, Brandeis, Columbia, Harvard, Colgate. In fact, of the 14 senior, mid-career, and junior authors whose work was collected in Sims’s first book on literary nonfiction, only TWO had attended anything other than top-ranked prestigious schools (University of Texas and Union College), and one of those is a private liberal arts college.

As they used to say at Ms. Magazine, CLICK! The light went on. For entrée into a high-powered career, four years at an Ivy League trumps ten years at a public university. While it’s not impossible to break into the upper ranks with a degree from an ordinary, relatively inexpensive school, neither is it likely.

So one might want to think twice about criticizing this family for wanting to get their child into the “best” school possible. And as for blasting Cortney Munna’s choice of majors: At Union, 25% of students major in social sciences, 10% in psychology, 10% in the liberal arts, 10% in biology, and only 11% in the potentially more lucrative engineering. At Yale, the most popular degrees are in social sciences (25%), history (12%), interdisciplinary studies (10%), biology (8%), English (6%), visual and performing arts (6%), and area and ethnic studies (5%). Of those who go to graduate school within a year after leaving Yale, only 1% go into MBA programs.

In 2008, according to Bloomberg Business Week, the median starting salary for a Yale graduate was $59,100. By mid-career, earners with Yale degrees typically made $326,000 a year, while graduates of Kent State, an excellent public school, earned an average of $124,000.

So, I’m afraid that the reasoning behind the family’s ambition to send Ms. Munna to a top-ranking school is not so all wet, after all.

Probably the issue here is that unless your family has the money to foot most or all of the bill for an elite school, you should downsize your ambitions and admit to yourself, right out of the box, that if you can’t pay for an elite degree in cash or are unwilling to shoulder a student loan the size of a house mortgage, you’re unlikely to have an elite career. After all, a salary of $124,000 is not such a bad fate. Ms. Munna and her family had only one failing: their ambitions were too high for their social and economic class. 😉