A Speech To College Freshmen

College classes are starting again, and everywhere excited college freshmen are heading off to their new schools, accompanied by worried parents.

Every college makes a big deal about graduation and brings in big-name speakers to talk about what the graduates should do with their degrees.  I think that approach is backward.  By the time you’ve got your degree, you’ve already made a bunch of choices that have put you on a certain path.  Kids could use some honest advice at the beginning of their college career, not the end.  Here is my advice to the incoming freshman class.

Greetings, you freshmen, and welcome!  Now that you’re settled in and have met your roommates, it’s time for you to consider an important question:  are you sure you want to be here?

In case you haven’t heard about it, getting an education at a college like this one is very expensive.  Chances are that you, or your parents, are borrowing the money to pay for your chance to study in these ivy-covered buildings all around us.   Those loans are going to be with you and your family for a long time, and the need to pay back what you have borrowed may affect a lot of the choices you will be making after you graduate.  If you are taking out student loans, you may well still be repaying them when you are in your 30s, or even 40s.  So, before you make that kind of long-term commitment, think for a minute:  Are you sure you want to borrow tens of thousands of dollars to get a college degree?

If your answer to that is “yes,” then you need to think about what you can do to achieve some kind of meaningful return on your investment in yourself.  Do you have a real interest that you want to pursue, or are you here because everyone knows that a college degree helps your job prospects?  If you are in the former category, follow your interest, but do it seriously.  Don’t dabble!  Take the courses that give you the best grounding in that area of interest, get to know your professors and advisors in that area, and look carefully at the training programs and internships that are available here.  If you are in the latter category, look to take the toughest schedule you can.  Don’t avoid the math and science courses because you think they’ll be too hard.  In our world of constant technological advances, people who have some grounding in math and science are better positioned than those who never ventured outside the humanities curriculum.

And speaking of long-term consequences, try to avoid them in your personal life, too.  That means having a little self-respect, and not heading down to the 24-hour soft-serve ice cream dispenser in your dorm cafeteria every night.  In case you haven’t noticed, we have an obesity problem in this country, and you don’t want to become part of it.  Your goal should be to avoid putting on the “freshman 10” — or 15, or 20, or 25.  And if you’re given the chance to engage in underage drinking — and we all know that chance will come, don’t we? — think before you drink!  You don’t want to drink and drive, or lose control of your senses and end up with a splitting headache and hangover in a stranger’s bed, or develop a life-long drinking problem.  In short, show some self-respect!

I’ve got only one more bit of advice for you:  accept that your new roommates seem a bit weird — but also understand that you are, too.  Notwithstanding what your parents have been telling you for the last 18 years, you aren’t perfect or the pinnacle of human evolution.  You’ve got your faults and foibles and odd habits, and your roommates do, too.  Accept their idiosyncrasies, and they’ll accept yours.  As you move through life, you’ll come to realize that cheerfully accepting other people’s differences, and being able to interact civilly with them despite those differences, is one of the most important lessons you can learn.

Good luck to you all!  In today’s world, you’re going to need it.

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When Law Schools Lie

Recently the University of Illinois College of Law announced that Law School Aptitude Test (LSAT) and grade point average (GPA) statistics provided on the school’s website were inflated.  The school posted the correct numbers, said it was conducting a thorough review of how the error happened, and placed the dean of admissions on leave as part of the investigation process.

The incident is part of a broader trend of concern about the credibility of law school admissions statistics at the beginning of the law school experience (the LSAT scores and GPAs of the incoming classes) and the placement statistics at the end of the process (how many graduates get law-related jobs).  The LSAT and GPA statistics are significant to the law schools’ ranking by the U.S. News and World Report, which uses those numbers to measure “selectivity.”  Every college and graduate school student, parent, professor, and administrator knows that the U.S. News and World Report ranking carries a huge amount of weight.  With law school admissions dropping — and they fell by 10 percent in 2011 — schools competing for the reduced pool of applicants may be sorely tempted to cook their  admissions and job placement figures.  Interestingly, plaintiffs’ lawyers have noted the issue and are pondering whether inaccurate reporting should be met by a class action lawsuit on behalf of students.

Institutions of higher learning used to presume to occupy the moral high ground.  More and more, however, those institutions behave like businesses and are facing the same kinds of scandals we see in the business world.  What do such scandals mean for a school’s ability to achieve its educational mission?  How is a law school that admits to falsifying data supposed to enforce an honor code, or credibly instruct students about legal ethics?

No Surprise To Parents Of College Students

The College Board reports that, once again, tuition and fee costs at both public and private colleges have increased at a rate faster than inflation.  For private four-year colleges in the United States, costs for the 2009-2010 year increased by an average 4.4 percent.  Average costs for public universities increased by an even larger amount — 6.5 percent.

There seems to be endless elasticity of demand for degrees from elite American colleges.  There undoubtedly are people who would gladly pay $100,000 a year for the privilege of seeing Junior get his sheepskin from Harvard or Yale.  As a result, there is no effective incentive for such schools to really try to control costs.  Why make cuts that will anger faculty and staff when tuition increases can be implemented without meaningful opposition?  Hiking tuition is simply the path of least resistance.

Interestingly, although politicians often talk about how important it is to try to make college affordable, they always do so in the context of government-backed loans to pay the tuitions and related costs set by the educational institutions.  In contrast, they never criticize college administrators for failing to control costs.  Colleges and universities have worked out a pretty sweet deal — they get lots of research funding and grant money from federal and state governments, and those governments then guarantee loans, at favorable interest rates, to help students pay the constantly increasing price tab for tuition and room and board.

Kish and I are now in our fifth year of paying college tuition costs, and the annual tuition increase notices come with the same certain regularity as the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano.  In reality, the ever-increasing cost of a higher education will not be reined in until the law of supply and demand once again comes to apply to the process of getting a college diploma, and that day still appears to be a long way off.