Wednesday, December 1, 2021

How to Choose A College: Advice Originally Posted on WalletHub

Jacob Sanders, a journalist with WalletHub, kindly asked me to share my advice on the various roles of college towns for an upcoming WalletHub article.

Titled 2022's Best College Towns and Cities in America, WalletHub posted the article yesterday, including my commentary. The article was authored by Adam McCann and contains advice from several higher education policy experts, including Mark Haynel, Alexander Jun, Herman Walston, and Joseph Paris.

Here are my answers to five WalletHub questions about college towns:

1. In deciding which university to attend, how important is the surrounding city/town?

A college's surrounding city or town is a crucial element to weigh when choosing a college.

At one time, small liberal arts colleges in rural areas and small towns were very attractive to college students. There are many small private colleges, especially in New England and the mid-Atlantic states. Some are affiliated with religious denominations or were started by philanthropists in the nineteenth century. Sweetbriar in Virginia is an example of such a school. Rural charm and a lovely campus were once very appealing.

These small schools are less attractive now. First, most college students now prefer to attend college in a big city with a more exciting social scene and more opportunities to make connections that lead to jobs.

Second, the small private colleges are pretty expensive. Tuition alone can be north of $50,0000 a year.

Finally, enrollment declines have hit the small private colleges very hard, especially the more obscure schools. Some of these small colleges are having trouble attracting students. Several have closed or are teetering on the brink of closure. No one wants to get a degree from a college that may not exist ten years after the student graduates.

In my opinion, students should not take out student loans to study at an expensive liberal arts college, particularly one with no nationwide visibility. 

On the other hand, colleges and universities in large cities have drawbacks as well. Crime is a growing problem in urban America, and violent crime is on the rise. Many urban schools are located near dangerous neighborhoods. For example, Tigerland, a once-popular area near LSU, with many student-oriented apartments, has become a slum with frequent incidents of violent crime, including murder. It would be a grave mistake for a young person to rent an apartment in a neighborhood like Tigerland. And many urban universities are located near dicey neighborhoods that are similar to Tigerland.

2. Are college cities/towns a good option for retirees? What about families?

College towns are attractive to retirees because they offer many activities for the larger community, like athletics, theater, performing arts events, book fairs, etc. But the cost of living in urban college towns can be pretty high. When I attended law school at the University of Texas, Austin was known as a mellow town with a low cost of living. It was once a great place to live for students, retirees, and families. (I once bought a one-dollar ticket to hear Willie Nelson perform.)

Today, the cost of living in Austin, TX, is out of sight, and traffic is choking the freeways and streets. It is still a lovely place to live, but housing is quite expensive -- took expensive for most retirees.

Some college towns have good public schools that attract families, but some do not have good schools. The public schools in Texas are generally good in the college towns: College Station (Texas A & M), Denton (University of North Texas), etc. But the urban schools in Louisiana are failing, and few people would move to the college town of Baton Rouge for the public schools. 

3. How can parents prepare their children for managing finances in college (student loans, credit cards, etc.)?

Parents need to be vigilant about how their children finance their education. On no account should a parent or grandparent take out a Parent PLUS loan to help a young relative pay for college. Parent PLUS loans are just as hard to discharge in bankruptcy as regular student loans, and a parent who suffers an illness or a job loss and has Parent PLUS loan obligations will face a financial nightmare.

In my opinion, parents should steer their children away from expensive, so-called "luxury" student housing and encourage them to live in a dorm for at least a couple of years. Students should not take out loans to finance an unsustainable luxury lifestyle while they are in college. And parents do their children no favors by giving their kids fancy cars and unlimited access to credit cards. College students need to live on a budget while in school because they will undoubtedly be constrained by a budget after they graduate. Loading a debit card with a fixed monthly spending limit will teach students to manage their budget.

Parents should resist the allure of elite colleges that are expensive and may not benefit their children in the long run. I got a doctorate from Harvard Graduate School of Education because I was dazzled by its reputation. But the graduate education program at Harvard was no better than the programs at many public universities, and Harvard was very expensive. I admit I made a mistake.

4. What are the advantages and disadvantages of going to college in-state vs. out-of-state?

Going to college out of state is often a good idea. Going to another state to study exposes the student to a larger world. For example, kids from small midwestern towns can benefit from living in a more lively urban environment. I grew up in a small town in Oklahoma, but I did my doctorate at Harvard. (But I wish I had gone to school somewhere else besides Harvard.)

Out-of-state tuition is higher than in-state tuition at public universities, which is a drawback. But public colleges across America are recruiting out-of-state students aggressively, and young people with good academic credentials (high ACT scores, good grades, etc.) have a very good chance of getting a scholarship. I know of a Louisiana family who sent a child to the University of Alabama rather than LSU because it was cheaper to go out of state due to the scholarship aid.

5. How can local authorities make their cities/towns more appealing to both new students and potential residents?

Crime, crime, crime. College towns must invest sufficient resources in law enforcement to keep students and residents safe. College professors and their students tend to be more progressive than the general population and may think defunding the police is a good idea. But it is not a good idea. Universities must make sure their campus police forces are trained not to use unnecessary force and to be sensitive to a diverse student population. Still, in my experience, campus police forces are very mindful of the needs of their students and remarkably tolerant of students who do boneheaded things. Protecting students from sexual assaults and alcohol-related injuries depends in part on having a professional local police force.

College towns also need to keep real estate development under control, which many college towns are not doing. Real estate developers have built thousands of apartments in the flood plain south of LSU in my community. Many are touted as luxury student housing. LSU and Baton Rouge do not have the infrastructure to support all this development, and the rental housing is overbuilt. The city does not recognize what is happening, but outside investors are building too much housing that will one day become slums.

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