The higher education landscape has changed drastically over the past few decades. In the past 20 years, in particular, college costs have increased exponentially. According to information from US News & World Report, tuition and fees at private national universities have jumped about 132%. At public national universities, tuition and fees have risen about 127% for out-of-state students and 158% for in-state.
When I discuss college planning strategies with clients, I typically focus on how to afford these steep tuition costs. Usually this involves utilizing tax advantaged 529 college savings accounts and other financial strategies. (I’ve discussed these strategies in a previous article.). However, in light of the recent antisemitic protests on college campuses around the country, it made me reconsider the traditional approach to college. Frankly, over are the days of just going to the most “prestigious” school a student can get into. Students and their parents must be introspective when determining where, and if, they should be going to college. They must recognize that this choice helps set the stage for the rest of a student’s life and will have a profound impact on a child’s future.
Below are some important points that every frum college bound student should consider.
Benefits of college: The main reason most people go to college is to make more money. When college is done properly, it will achieve that goal. In fact, according to data from the Federal Reserve, college graduates are half as likely to be unemployed as their peers who only have a high school degree. Additionally, typical earnings for bachelor’s degree holders are 84% higher than workers whose highest degree is a high school diploma.
The challenge is that not everyone knows how to “do college right.” It’s crucial to attend a university that sets students up for financial success by preparing them for the real world. It’s also important to choose a major, and pursue a degree, that has value in the marketplace. Finally, the network one builds in college can be helpful for life. Many of my friends from college are professionals in other fields. These lifelong friendships have led to mutually beneficial financial opportunities.
A school that does not prepare you for financial success is an expensive hobby and a bad investment.
Financial challenges: One of the biggest challenges with many colleges is its cost. It is not uncommon for folks to solicit my help in figuring out how to deal with their student debt load years after graduation. For folks to be in their mid-30s, 40s, or older and still have several hundred thousand dollars in student loans is a shanda. Saddling a student with an insurmountable level of debt and no realistic strategy for how to repay it, is setting them up for failure. It’s important to understand the costs and determine if your career goals warrant that expenditure.
Religious challenges: At a speaking engagement last year, one of the other frum presenters was telling me he had kids in college. He went on to say that “It is crazy for anyone to go to secular university. Parents spend 18 years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to give our children a yeshiva education. Why on Earth would anyone throw it all away by sending their kids to a place like Harvard or Columbia where they are immersed in a secular culture?” Initially, I found his comment unsettling. Who wouldn’t want to go to Harvard? By the time I got home from the event, I realized what I really found so troubling: He was right!
As a parent, I expend so much effort, time, and money to ensure that my children are immersed in a Torah lifestyle. The thought of throwing them into an environment that is totally devoid of yiddishkite seems like a bad strategy. Granted there are some exceptions, and Chabad and Hillel on campus can do great work, but that is the minority. Intermarriage rates in this country are already sky high. Sending kids to live at a secular university for four years meaningfully increases this probability. There is no university in the country, no matter how prestigious, that is worth jeopardizing living a Torah oriented lifestyle.
Antisemitic challenges: In the weeks since the October 7 Hamas terrorist attack on innocent Israelis, many students and professors have shown their true antisemitic colors. Between students signing declarations that they are standing in solidarity against Israel, violent protests, and antisemitic speech, many business leaders have distanced themselves from some of the most prestigious universities in the country.
CEO of Pershing Square Capital, Bill Ackman, said he would not hire any Harvard students who signed an open letter blaming Israel for the violence. Ackman said, “One should not be able to hide behind a corporate shield when issuing statements supporting the actions of terrorists.”
Apollo Capital Management’s CEO, Marc Rowan, a University of Pennsylvania alumnus who has given $50 million to the school, plans to oust the leadership of his alma mater. Rowan’s anger at the school stems from what he believes is an atmosphere of antisemitism. Administrators failed to quickly condemn the recent deadly Hamas terrorist attacks. Nor did they condemn a featured speaker at a festival that was hosted on campus during the high holidays who spoke about “death to Israel.”
One final recent example is hedge fund billionaire Leon Cooperman, who gave $50 million to Columbia University, his alma mater, saying he will be halting all donations in reaction to students protesting against Israel and an assault of a Jewish student on campus. Cooperman said in an interview with FoxNews that “These kids in college have dreck for brains.” (Dreck is the Yiddish version of the word he actually used).
This is just a short list of examples of the antisemitism raging on college campuses today. If these students are the best and brightest our country has to offer, then the future does not look bright. Is this the type of environment in which you’d like your child to be immersed? It’s often said that you are influenced by the people with whom you surround yourself. Choosing certain colleges means surrounding yourself with rabid antisemites who spew hateful speech and intellectually dishonest slogans.
Potential solutions: Given the challenges of high costs, lack of yiddishkite, and rampant antisemitism, what are college age students to do? The answer is to determine your goals and reasons for attending college in the first place. What career would you like to pursue? Does that career even require higher education? For some careers, a certificate program or apprenticeship may be significantly more useful. If you want to focus on learning, perhaps a college program where you can get credit from learning in Yeshiva may be a good option. In some fields, an undergraduate degree is only a formality, the real key is graduate school. In such a scenario, find a program that will allow you to finish your undergraduate degree at an accelerated pace instead of hanging around for four years wasting time and money. Additionally, there are wonderful accredited Jewish universities where students can get a degree from a well-respected institution, within a healthy Torah atmosphere.
Closing thoughts: Regardless of what road a Jewish student decides to pursue, it is clear that there are now more options than ever before. Simply going to the “best” school you can get into is far from a sound approach. I am sure that there are some cynics reading this thinking back fondly on their time at secular university. The reality is that times have changed. Today’s college experience is much different than it was 20, 30 or 40 years ago. The prices are exponentially higher, the indoctrination of students to embrace a warped worldview is more prevalent, and antisemitism is more widespread. Taking all these factors into account, it’s time to rethink how young people approach the investment of higher education.
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