Jews, College, Money and Nachas

Given these difficult economic times, I would like to make a suggestion that, if enacted, can save many readers $200,000 or more per child. Do not send your son or daughter to an expensive college.

I understand that offering such advice to Jews is akin to suggesting to Christians that they abandon their Trinitarian beliefs. For many Jews, getting their child into a prestigious college is the greatest goal of parenthood.

This is a Jewish problem that far transcends money alone.

The deep desire to have one’s child get into a prestigious college does not always emanate from only healthy motives. Parents who place great importance on what college their child attends will respond that this is only a selfless desire; that all they want is what is best for their child. But I am not quite sure.

On a conscious level, there is no doubt that parents are convinced their motives are selfless and pure. And that is surely part of the story. But it is only part of the story, because for many Jews, what college their child attends is their — the parents’ — badge of honor in Jewish society.

Let me offer anecdotal evidence.

Having been in public life all of my adult life, I am not infrequently recognized by strangers. Most days someone will walk over to me — at a restaurant, on the street — and say something (usually complimentary). And, for the record, I have never found people coming over to me annoying; indeed, I am deeply appreciative of people’s kind comments.

Sometimes the person will say more than a brief hello, and tell me something about themselves. And if they tell me what college their child is attending, I immediately assume the person is Jewish. In all of America, one would be hard pressed to find a non-Jew who tells strangers what college his or her child attends.

I am fairly certain of this, because whenever I relate this to a Jewish audience, it is greeted with much laughter — the laughter of recognition. But whenever I have related this to a non-Jewish audience, almost no one has laughed — they have no idea why it is funny. They didn’t know that anyone tells strangers what college their child goes to.

Why do so many Jews tell people what college (if it is prestigious) their child attends? I think that for most Jews the ability to say, “My son/daughter attends Yale” (or some other prominent college) is the ultimate personal success story.

And this itself emanates from a deeper source in Jewish life — the role of “nachas.”

It is revealing that there is no English equivalent. The term seems uniquely Jewish. The words “pride” or “joy” do not fully capture it. And I suspect that far fewer American non-Jews identify “pride” in their children with what college they attend. That is why so many Jewish parents will take out second and third mortgages on their homes and go into great debt to pay for their child’s college education.

Which brings us to the other sad part of all this preoccupation with college — it is rarely worth the money.

What college one attends is wildly overblown in its importance. The truth is, four years later, almost no one cares. Even those who pay enormous emotional and financial prices to get their child into a great preschool so as to get into a great elementary school so as to get into a great high school so as to get into a great college — even they don’t really care. How many of these people choose their doctor on the basis of what college, or even medical school, that doctor attended? Do you know what college your internist or surgeon attended? Your lawyer? Your money manager? Your rabbi? Did you choose any of your closest friends on that basis? Your spouse?

In nearly 30 years of broadcasting and 40 years of writing and lecturing, I have been asked questions about every subject imaginable — personal and otherwise. Yet I have never been asked what college or graduate school I attended. I am either worth hearing or reading, or I am not. Your doctor or lawyer or money manager or rabbi either merits your money, or he/she doesn’t. 

And there are often personal prices paid by children raised with a prestigious college as the greatest goal of their lives.

First, parents often send their children the message that “intelligence” — erroneously defined as academic achievement — is more important than goodness (and other virtues).

Second, more than a few of those who do get into a prestigious school think they are great just because they got into that school.

Third, what goal(s) does a young person have after getting into a “great” college? If one’s major goal in life, from the age of 4, has been getting into prestigious schools, what is one’s primary goal going to be afterward? Making prestigious money?

Finally, whatever arguments can be made for spending a fortune on Stanford — and unless one can afford it, I do not believe Stanford is worth the money either — there is rarely a good argument for spending a fortune you cannot afford on most colleges.

The fact is that a terrific kid who attends Cal State Northridge (CSUN) will likely grow up to be a terrific adult. And you will keep your hard-earned money. It’s good for you and good for your child.