A few weeks ago, in a screed entitled "Higher Education: An Over-Built Industry?", I had the poor taste to question the value of polite society’s sacred cows, a four-year college education. Overcome by a severe case of nostalgia, I suggested that college ain’t what it used to be. Instead of serving the top 15 per cent of graduating high school students, colleges lavishly cater to half of our graduates. And further, that college professors are hiding in their offices, worshipping at the god of research.

A few overly critical friends pointed out to me that my valiant attack on higher education was belatedly biting the hand that had fed me for some 40 years. One mean-spirited former colleague opined that my stand might have been more courageous if I had made it before I retired from the classroom. These nit-pickings aside, I once more take on higher education, but this time as guide to the consumer.

Given the fact that these days college is the thing to do after college, a few suggestions might be in order. While vast numbers of this June’s high school graduates will be trooping off to college next August with little but visions of hardy parties and not having to make their beds, there are other reasons for shelling out the 160+ thousands of dollars for the four-year "experience". Four, in particular, come to mind.

First, money. There is a persistent and growing gap between high school graduates and college graduates. In 1970, the salary gap between 30-year-old high school and college graduates was a mere 17 per cent. Today the salary gap is over 50 per cent. It is truly a mystery how this can be in the face of the fact that only 25 per cent of 1970 high school graduates went off to college and in face of the opinion (mine!) that the quality of a college education has dramatically swooned since 1970.

Second, the mating game (by which the author means the pursuit of a suitable spouse and not the campus sexual aerobics currently so popular). While once upon a time June graduation from college was regularly followed by wedding bells, grads are marrying later and later these days. Still, the college campus is the major place students find their future mates.

Third, vocational skills. Sociologists refer to a college education as a "signalling device". The fact that one has suffered through four years signals to employers that an individual has a set of attributes (ie, can sit through boring sales meetings and give the impression that he is paying attention) and skills (ie, with the aid of ever-ready grammar and spell-checker, write reports on arcane subjects). Since more and more of higher education is devoted to fashioning workers for business and industry, college grads may, indeed, have skills that enable employers to quickly "turn a penny". Increasingly, too, many students get internships in companies which upon graduation lead directly into a real job. (That colleges charge tuition so that students can leave campus to work unpaid for companies as interns is, indeed, an ingenious scam. But I digress.)

Fourth, an education. While hardly the main event at most colleges, a motivated, aggressive student can, indeed, get an education on most campuses. There are libraries, a few professors who really like to teach the younger generation, the odd like-minded student and, of course, the World Wide Web. And there is time! After the typical 15 hours of required class attendance, the student has 153 hours a week to pursue an education. While students (or their parents!) pay heavily for this free time, it is a golden opportunity to become on speaking terms with the accumulated wisdom of the world. Becoming at home in the world of ideas may not help with those sales meetings and reports, but surely it has some benefit.

Advice on choosing a college

While the road to college is increasingly inevitable for the four reasons stated, some guidance may be useful.

First, students should realise that college is a "product". OK, it is a privilege. It is life’s great opportunity. Well, yes. But it is still a product for sale. And colleges today rehire hire large armies to merchandise their goods. Websites, brochures, catalogues, videotapes and CDs and admissions officers and their troops of underlings have one purpose: to get you to buy their product at the highest cost possible. In the face of a college visit, most potentially paying customers, unfamiliar with the dark commercial underside of higher education, lose their critical consumer skills. While they will do research before they buy a toaster or a television set, and bargain mercilessly for a car or a piece of property, they surrender their cheque books to the college treasury with nary a whimper.

Contrary to the received wisdom, colleges will bargain over tuition and costs. Not always, but usually. It depends (surprise!) on supply and demand. Think of a college as a vast hotel with a substantial overhead and large fixed costs. The only way the college can pay the mortgage, the utility bills and, yes, the salaries of all those professors is to fill all the "hotel rooms". If the hotel is sold out and has a waiting list, the customer is out of luck. However, if there are empty rooms and empty beds, it is bargain time for the buyer. A little research and a poker player’s stare can put a large dent in a multi-thousand dollar bill. Two sites that may help shave the raising costs of higher education are www.GovBenefits.gov and www.GovLoans.gov.

Second, before committing to a college, find out as much as possible about its curriculum. "Curriculum" is one of the slipperiest words in the educator’s lexicon. It can mean the offered courses or the entire kit-and-caboodle from courses to pep rallies. However, the formal curriculum, that is, the courses, is what the big bucks are going for. The variation here is enormous. Some colleges have few requirements and allow an enormous amount of choice by students. Often this policy is a cop-out because the faculty won’t go to the trouble of wrestling with that most essential educational question, "What is most worth knowing?". Instead the institution sets down a smörgåsbord of offerings in the hope that young, unformed minds will be capable of seeing beneath the course labels and creating for themselves a quality program of study. In general, though, beware of curricular choice and flexibility. It often masks the fact that the faculty, once pried away from their own specialties, don’t have clue one about what it means to be educated.

Other colleges claim to know what is most worth knowing and require certain courses they believe every college grad should master. Often called "the core" or the "core curriculum", it, at a minimum, represents the conscious choice and intellectual commitment of the school’s grown-ups. Whether the core is kept up-to-date or fobbed off to be taught by indentured graduate students are questions that cry out for answers. Regrettably, answers to these most crucial curricular questions are like good used cars. They are very hard to come by.

Rankings are not everything

Third, the best versus the good. Many parents are in the hunt for the "best college" for their Todds and Tiffanys. "Best" is usually defined by authoritative sources such as the annual U.S. News and World Report issue ranking institutions of higher education. The hunt is followed by a frantic race to get the dear child into the target school. This hunt and race is often the most tremulous and trying event in their married lives. There are endless conversations with the high school’s college counsellor, a poor soul who has little more to go on than the same U.S. News and World Report and mountains of PR materials from colleges. Endless badgering. Endless rewrites of the personal essay. Endless anguish until April 1 or thereabouts. Then temporary joy or disappointment. All too often, these battered parents get little out of it but a college decal for the family car’s rear window, some hefty cancelled tuition cheques and a soon-to-be-estranged child. The mistake is mismatching student and college.

Good schools can crush young people. A school where one’s son or daughter is continually being over-challenged and where the best that they can do is, by the standards of their peers, mediocre can stunt a person. On the other hand, the same students in a slightly less competitive environment can gain a confidence and sense of self that will stay with them for a lifetime. Since I was a college professor for so many epochs, friends and neighbours have erroneously looked on me as a Delphic authority on where their children should go to college. Although I, like every educator, have my favourites and my hit list, I was useless to them. Occasionally, when I knew their child very well I held my breath and gave them advice. Some of them are still talking to me. Bottom line: picking a college is a matter of matching and a matter of luck.

The quagmire of campus social life

Fourth, the campus social life. Here, gentle reader, we enter dark and murky waters. Remember those 152 hours of "free time" cited above. Well, the campus social scene will attempt to devour most of those hours. College and university campuses vary enormously in the quality and quantity of their social lives. Some few are adult-supervised and designed to blend with the school's academic mission. They offer out-of-class contacts with professors, planned social events, well-known visiting speakers and serious dramas. These schools are committed to a holistic concept of a college-educated person. They are, alas, few in number and dwindling.

Somewhere in the 1970s, college administrators and faculty forgot their Latin. With that went any semblance of being in loco parentis. The revolution in the campus social scene (and it was a revolution!) was one part Liberation Movement; one part Sexual Revolution (which really confused the faculty); and one part Drug Culture. Throw in a dash of faculty laziness and a jigger of administrator cowardice and we have the explosive cocktail that is the 21st century campus norm.

Tom Wolfe, one of America’s most gifted social observers and a compelling storyteller, visited my old school, Stanford University, a few years ago. What he experienced as a visitor to a frat party sent him on a quest. Over the next two years Wolfe visited over a dozen well known colleges and universities, interviewing students and observing their out-of-class behaviour. Out of these experiences has come a truly frightening novel of life on campus. I Am Charlotte Simmons is the story of a bright, beautiful and sheltered freshman girl who is systematically torn apart by sexually predatory upperclassmen and the example of loose, promiscuous female suite mates. Since the appearance of the book in 2004, women and some men students across the country have testified to the accuracy of the toxic carnality and adult indifference on their campuses.

The myth that today’s 18-year-olds can create and maintain their own social world without careful adult supervision rivals accounts of a blue cheese moon. Few young people, cut off from parents and adult guidance, are ready for what they find on many of our campuses. Typically lacking religious guidance, encountering a swirl of new world-views and experiencing unrestrained freedom for the first time, even the most grounded young person is challenged. Therefore, given the stakes, parents should be particularly vigilant and Tom Wolfe-like in their investigation of the campuses their offspring may attend. College social life can further the formation of character or break a character. High stakes.

Why not wait a year?

Fifth, when in doubt, don’t. I have never known a single case where delaying going to college right out of high school was a mistake. In fact, few 18-year-olds have the maturity to truly exploit the rich opportunity offered by college life. On the other hand, I’ve known legions of students who wasted the opportunity, acquired soul-shrinking habits and are begrudgingly paying off their loans. Freedom is not always a blessing, particularly for a late teenager.

There is a small, but growing movement among some high school seniors to delay thoughts of college until they have had more life experience. They do a variety of things, such as working in a factory, a Wal-Mart type mega store, or an office. Some work in nursing homes and with the poor. Some travel, taking whatever jobs they can to keep themselves afloat. We know personally several young people who have deferred immediate entry into college. In every case they appear to have made beneficial decisions.

Lastly, stay in touch. Many parents are so exhausted by the combination of "the teenage years" and "the college admissions process" that they are hardly talking to their child by the time the acceptance letter(s) come. At this point, they just want to pack them into the old SUV, write the cheque and head off to Higher Ed Land. On the other hand, Todd and Tiffany may need you now more than any time in their lives. Few freshmen escape roommate troubles, romantic setbacks or academic stresses and strains. Many enter black holes of depression. Think of Wolfe’s Charlotte.

On the other hand, this can be an ideal time to forge a new, adult relationship with one’s distant child. Learning to talk with and keep up with an evolving college student can be a daunting task, but it may prove to be the best return on your tuition bill. If you don’t learn to converse with them in college you may have to wait years before they have children and come around desperately seeking advice and free babysitting.

Emeritus Professor Kevin Ryan founded the Center for the Advancement of Ethics and Character at Boston University. He has written and edited 20 books. He has appeared recently on CBS's "This Morning", ABC's "Good Morning America", "The O’Reilly Factor", CNN and the Public Broadcasting System speaking on character education.

Kevin Ryan is a retired professor, living at the edge of Boston and of sanity. He was once a high school English teacher, but found the work too hard and became a professor of education....