The Ethicist: Do I Have to Spring for My Kid to Go to an Elite College?

February 18, 2018 by Joshua
in Ethicist

My series answering the New York Times’ Ethicist column with an active, leadership approach instead of an analytical, philosophical perspective continues with “Do I Have to Spring for My Kid to Go to an Elite College?

I dreamed of my daughter attending a “highly selective” university, in part for the door-opening advantages these schools provide. But I recently lost my job, and though my savings can cover my retirement, I have less than I planned on. My daughter is likely to be admitted to a highly selective program but unlikely to receive aid. She could attend a local university essentially for free. The cost for the elite college that she is considering will run close to $300,000. I can cover the tuition, but it would be a sizable hit. I have told her that she alone will decide where she goes to school. She has expressed a strong desire to attend an in-state school. I feel guilty that I’m not pushing her to consider only the elite schools but also secretly hoping that she stays local. What are your thoughts? Name Withheld

My response: My thoughts? Everything you wrote is a common situation with countless families across the country and has been for generations. You can find countless similar stories. Searching on “should my child choose elite or state college” returned plenty of responses but no absolute right answers. Reading them until you stop seeing new views will probably prepare you as well as anything external. Often quantity is the route to quality.

On your relationship with your daughter, no one can give you a right answer. You have to develop your relationship with her. I recommend improving your leadership skills (I don’t mean person-in-a-suit-in-the-corner-office-telling-people-what-to-do leadership but the social and emotional skills underlying creating effective, meaningful give-and-take relationships) so you can develop that relationship with more open communication, empathy, understanding, and so on.

Besides the problem you describe, you say you feel guilty. You can manage your emotional response—through, for example, choosing your environment, beliefs, and behavior—and I’ve never seen a benefit to suffering or being miserable. I recommend developing the emotional skills to manage your emotions. You’ll make yourself more effective in achieving your goals and feel emotions you prefer, which I call a better life.

The New York Times response:

First, don’t assume that going to an elite school rather than a good state one will make a difference to her financial prospects. A study by the researcher Stacy Berg Dale and the economist Alan B. Krueger showed, roughly, that students from upper-middle-class families who were admitted to a highly selective school but chose to go to less selective institutions earned as much as those who made the opposite choice. As a practical matter, your being secure enough financially to be able to assist her with getting a first home or something of that sort later on might well be a better bet for her.

Still, this is a complex and contested issue. Suppose that your daughter was likely to be somewhat worse off going to an excellent but less prestigious state school. You would be weighing a big cost to you against a small probable benefit to her. Generally speaking, you’re not obliged to do things for your children that meet that description — especially if a result may be that you’ll need her support later in life.

Your child’s college experience will, of course, be about much more than her material circumstances. In “The God Who Loves You,” the poet Carl Dennis imagines a benevolent power who suffers as he ponders your possible futures: “Knowing as he does exactly what would have happened/Had you gone to your second choice for college,/Knowing the roommate you’d have been allotted/Whose ardent opinions on painting and music/Would have kindled in you a lifelong passion./A life thirty points above the life you’re living/On any scale of satisfaction. ..”

Lacking such godlike insight, though, we can’t know whether the state school or the “highly selective” school will serve her better. Heartily encourage your daughter to consider the sort of school you think would be preferable for her, if not doing so will leave you feeling guilty. But know that your sense of guilt is unwarranted.


I used to work at a small architecture firm where I quickly gained lots of responsibility. One day, a client asked me to work with him on a project. I told him I had an exclusive agreement with my bosses, but when I left I would be free to do so. Shortly before my last day, one of my bosses asked what I was going to do next. I replied that I was in talks with one of the firm’s clients for a project outside the firm’s line of work. My boss became angry and asked if I thought it was right to talk to her client. I replied I saw no problem as I had already quit and was not stealing work. I was fired on the spot for “personal, not professional, betrayal.” Did I do anything wrong? Name Withheld

My response: Labeling something doesn’t change your situation. If the situation is over, then the label doesn’t matter. If it’s persisting, you probably want to resolve it more than label it. I suggest that more than a New York Times columnist labeling something for you, you’d benefit from developing the social and emotional skills to resolve the situation and improve your emotional well-being. You’ll lose the excuse to say, “But the New York Times said I wasn’t wrong” but gain the ability to resolve these inevitable parts of life without needing others’ help. You’ll make mistakes, but you’ll learn from them. Experience is the best way to learn these things, I’ve found, as have millions of others. I recommend accepting the missteps you’ll make, looking at them as learning experiences, and using them to learn and grow.

The New York Times response:

There’s evidently an understanding in your line of work that you won’t “steal” clients from firms that employ you. But that understanding isn’t clear enough to avoid disagreements among architects as to what is and isn’t O.K. From the way you describe the situation, it sounds as though you had no reason to think you were doing something wrong; otherwise you would have kept your plans from your boss. Indeed, her response — that the betrayal was “personal, not professional” — tends to confirm that you hadn’t violated any professional norms. And in a decent business, you don’t fire people for personal reasons anyway.

As for personal norms: The client called you, and I can’t think of any personal obligations that were breached when you agreed to talk to someone about a project outside your former employer’s expertise and after you left the firm. Are you sure you’ve told me everything relevant to her response? If you have, count yourself lucky that you were already leaving.


While working in a country that recently experienced a large-scale genocide, I was befriended by a survivor who lost most of his family. Over a few months, Alex, as I’ll call him, offered invaluable insights, shared the story of his survival, helped me gain access to a local tribunal and was an excellent interpreter. He treated me as an honored guest and brought me to the village where he grew up. I thought of him almost as a brother. He didn’t ask for money; still, I gave him a modest but not insignificant “gift” before returning home.

We exchanged email for about a year, during which he wrote that he had become “unstable.” After a bomb exploded outside his workplace, he began writing of increasingly implausible threats, culminating in a request for significant financial help to flee the country. He asked me to contact some American friends he had also worked with; these friends told me that Alex had requested money from them too. They said they had raised a considerable sum for him to attend university but learned that he never enrolled. I broke off the correspondence when Alex indignantly and implausibly denied all this.

A few years later I received an email sent to scores of other recipients, offering his services as a guide and interpreter. I felt I had an ethical obligation to share my experience in a “reply all” note. I said that I highly recommended Alex as a guide and interpreter but would not make any advance payments to him. The question of whether this was the right thing to do still haunts me. Name Withheld

My response: We’ve all experienced trying to help someone only to find what we meant to help got the other person angry, frustrated, or the like. We’ve also all experienced someone trying to help us who only made things worse.

I usually respond to letters with no questions by saying something like, “Thank you for sharing your story,” and not giving advice or commenting much more. Not commenting may sound like an easy way out of more thoughtful and helpful writing, but I’ve learned many times in coaching, teaching, and friendships that helping people who haven’t asked for it is a recipe for disaster.

My starting point for why is that what different people consider “helping” depends on their values, views, goals, and other factors that you, giving unasked advice, don’t know. For example, offering potential solutions to someone who just wants to be heard often leads to exasperation, frustration, and feeling devalued. But just listening to someone who wants advice can lead to impatience, frustration, and other emotions neither party wants.

However obvious you consider your interpretation of what the letter-writer wants, dozens of other interpretations exist, any of which the writer may have meant, or not. Acting on unchecked assumptions risks imposing your values on others, which usually provokes responses you wish you hadn’t from others.

I’ve found the best policy to keep neutral until the person clarifies what they want so I know what “help” means to them in that situation.

The New York Times response:

You’re worried about undermining the opportunities of someone who has been through a horrendous experience and who, despite that, was enormously helpful to you. Alex has, so to speak, credit in the moral bank. But you also have reason to believe that he has sought significant sums under false pretenses. So, in money matters, he’s sketchy. His moral credits have secured some durable measure of good will from you, but they don’t entitle him to freedom from the consequences of this bad behavior. And the people you tipped off were also entitled to protection from being scammed. You told them the truth: that he was excellent at one thing and not to be trusted with another. Given his record, that’s what people doing business with him needed to know.

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