The Trouble With Boutique Colleges

Americans need to think about the choices contributing to student debt.

Young female student sitting under tree on campus
Andy Sacks / Getty

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President Joe Biden’s loan-forgiveness program will help a select group of people once, but nothing about the college-debt problem will actually improve until voters, students, and parents change how they think about college.

But first, here are three new stories from The Atlantic.

Shopping for a Degree

I took a lot of static on social media this week after I wrote on Tuesday about my concerns that Biden’s executive order forgiving certain student loans for certain groups of borrowers might not be good politics for the Democrats going into an election. The anger is understandable. I think and write about politics, and I’m worried that centrist Democrats in tight races are already backpedaling away from the Biden plan. But for most people, “Will this help Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell?” is not the first thing that comes to mind if you offer to erase $10,000 of their debts.

Today, however, I want to leave aside the fight over the bills for college education, and instead offer some thoughts about costs. Going to a top-tier university, if you can afford it, is a life-changing choice that will likely work out well. Going to an affordable public institution for particular professional skills (such as nursing or teaching) is also a life-changing choice that will likely go well.

Going to an extremely expensive school that is neither selective nor known for a particular course of study and majoring in medieval Corsican poetry is a life-changing choice that is almost certainly not going to work out well.

Likewise, dumping money on students in the name of “the public interest” solves nothing and is not always in the public interest. When America goosed the educational system after getting surprised by the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, it targeted the creation of spots for engineering and science (and Soviet studies), instead of just splattering money around for anyone who wanted to major in anything.

I faced the problem of the boutique major myself as a college student. I began at Boston University—which in the 1970s was the very definition of a middling, not-very-selective, expensive urban school—as a chemistry major. My parents had no formal education and neither had graduated from high school. Science seemed like a job, so I majored in it. The only problem is that I wasn’t good at it; I might have struggled through and taught science, but I was never going to be a real chemist. So I decided to switch to political science.

My parents were, to put it mildly, worried. (My dad blew his stack, actually.) But I had already sought out the counseling of a professor who’d advised me that political science plus a language such as Russian was, in those years, a highly employable major, especially for government work. After washing cars and driving a taxi with a master’s from Columbia, I landed a job with the Defense Department; it was only because Georgetown took a chance on me that I finished a Ph.D.

Before readers object that my observations here lead to some sort of fetishizing of STEM education, let me say that I have always been a champion of the liberal arts. I think every degree should be based in the liberal arts, especially highly technical ones. I do not want to live in a world without art-history or French-literature majors. But is a degree in philosophy, mostly, a pursuit of people of means, who can afford to cover the gap between their degree and their future earnings?


Unfortunately, teenagers seize control of this whole process far too early. They demand—and get—tours of colleges to which they have not yet even applied and whose costs they do not yet grasp. Tuition-dependent boutique schools are keenly aware that they are competing for students, as I wrote in my book The Death of Expertise:

This entire [shopping] process means not only that children are in charge, but that they are already being taught to value schools for some reason other than the education it might provide them. Schools know this, and they’re ready for it. In the same way the local car dealership knows exactly how to place a new model in the showroom, or a casino knows exactly how to perfume the air that hits patrons just as they walk in the door, colleges have all kinds of perks and programs at the ready as selling points, mostly to edge out their competitors over things that matter only to kids.

Add to this the choice of a boutique major—the humanities or the “interdisciplinary” majors that typically are just whatever the student’s adviser is willing to support—and the risks of disaster increase.

For students who refuse to go to a public school (which, in most states, is still a good deal) but did not gain admission to a top-tier school, the beautiful boutique school is a tempting debt trap. Debt forgiveness is a Band-Aid. In order to fix the broken system of higher education in America, we need to start changing our culture and how we think about what it means to “go to college.”


Today’s News
  1. The Justice Department has released a redacted version of the affidavit that investigators used to obtain a search warrant for Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence.
  2. The biotech company Moderna is suing Pfizer and its partner BioNTech for patent infringement in the development of COVID-19 vaccines.
  3. Jerome Powell, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, said in a speech that the central bank’s attempts to bring down inflation will lead to “some pain” for Americans.


Evening Read
statue sighing on black background
(Edmon de Haro)

How Life Became an Endless, Terrible Competition

By Daniel Markovits

(A 2019 story from the Atlantic archive)

In the summer of 1987, I graduated from a public high school in Austin, Texas, and headed northeast to attend Yale. I then spent nearly 15 years studying at various universities—the London School of Economics, the University of Oxford, Harvard, and finally Yale Law School—picking up a string of degrees along the way. Today, I teach at Yale Law, where my students unnervingly resemble my younger self: They are, overwhelmingly, products of professional parents and high-class universities. I pass on to them the advantages that my own teachers bestowed on me. They, and I, owe our prosperity and our caste to meritocracy.

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break
A still from "House of the Dragon"
A still from "House of the Dragon" (Ollie Upton / HBO)

Read. Summer’s not over yet; there’s still time to pick up a book from our summer reading list, which has something for every mood.

If you’re stuck, our critics put together a list of 12 books to help you love reading again, including Nora Ephron’s Heartburn and Zadie Smith’s Intimations.

Watch. Industry is the most thrilling show on TV. If you’re looking for less thrill and more comfort, try one of these perfect shows for a short attention span. (Our critics are less enthused about House of the Dragon.)

If you’re in the mood for a documentary, Hulu’s new series about the Lakers, Legacy, is worth your time.

In theaters, try Both Sides of the Blade, Claire Denis’ portrait of a marriage in quiet crisis.

Play our daily crossword.


This October will mark the 65th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik, the first man-made object in orbit. The Soviet Union beating us into space was a national trauma: The prominent physicist Edward Teller compared the Soviet launch to Pearl Harbor and President Dwight Eisenhower’s approval rating cratered almost instantly. If you’d like to revisit this period in film, there’s a small but endearing movie from 1999 titled October Sky, based on the memoirs of the NASA scientist Homer Hickam, who got the bug to become a scientist after the launch of Sputnik. The story follows Hickam, a boy in 1957, as he and his friend try to make their own rocket. It is also something of a family drama: Hickam grew up in West Virginia, where his dreams of becoming a scientist did not go over well with his father or other members of his mining-town community.

On Monday, NASA will launch Artemis 1, which could be the first step in our return to the moon. October Sky is a good reminder of how it all began.

— Tom

Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.