The Sweet Lemon Effect: College Grads Doubt Value of College Degrees-Except Their Own

Ashley Thorne

Having made herself an unsolvable problem to the nuns in the abbey, Maria strolls toward the Von Trapp mansion, where she will begin her new vocation as a Fraulein for seven motherless children. She sings as she walks, at first frightened by the unknown world before her; but then, swinging a clunky guitar case and clicking her heels, she grows resolute and self-assured.  

“I have confidence in sunshine, I have confidence in rain, I have confidence that spring will come again…I have confidence in confidence alone, besides which, you see, I have confidence in me!” she belts.

The American Council on Education is similarly encouraged by confidence. Under its initiative, Solutions for our Future, ACE released a poll which collected feedback from 1000 25-39-year-old college graduates around the country.

The survey asked, “Upon graduation, were you effectively prepared with the knowledge and skills you needed?” to which 84 percent said “Yes,” and “Given the time dedicated to earning your degree and the money spent on tuition, do you believe your college education was worth it?” to which 92 percent affirmed “Yes.”

But these yea-sayers gave one deviant answer: although 71 percent believed they had paid a fair price for their education, 65 percent thought that most colleges and universities are charging unfairly.

There are two possible explanations for the inconsistency. First, the time factor (which the poll does not take into account). The oldest people surveyed were 39; if they graduated as 22-ish-year-olds, then it’s been 17 years since they were students. In fact, they could be in the stage of life to be looking at college tuition prices for their teenage children, and thinking, “I’m sure it didn’t cost this much when I was in school.” And they are right. College prices are going up, not down, as time goes by. In that sense, those reached by the survey correctly surmise that tuition has become less fair.

Second, the justification factor. A November 2007 New York Times article explains that humans will rationalize decisions we have already made, and that we dispel “buyer’s remorse” by telling ourselves that what we chose is much better than what we turned down. Capuchin monkeys also justify their choices this way. The author writes,

The compulsion to justify decisions may seem irrational, and maybe petty, too, like the fox in Aesop’s fable who stopped trying for the grapes and promptly told himself they were sour anyway. But perhaps Aesop didn’t appreciate the evolutionary utility of this behavior for humans as well as animals. Once a decision has been made, second-guessing may just interfere with more important business.

Possibly the poll responders acted under a basic impulse of human nature here. We all tend to paint our past decisions in the best possible light, and “have confidence in confidence alone.” In so doing, we are not only avoiding time-wasting regret, we are looking to impress ourselves and others.

Surely the graduate survey-takers wanted to look savvy and not naïve, by giving the impression that they had taken pains to get a reasonable bargain on college. So too, they may have wanted to sound as if their education was expensive, and that they had simply been so well-educated that it was worth it.

A majority of people felt themselves to be among the few privileged recipients of a sound education worth the tuition. They took heart and proudly charged through the poll with guitar case swinging. But their justification of the price they paid stands starkly in contrast with their consensus that most colleges cost too much.

Another consideration is the American Council on Education’s vested interest in this survey. Solutions for Our Future describes its mission:

…to establish a dialogue with the American people—and especially with opinion leaders and decision makers—to increase public understanding of the ways in which colleges and universities serve our society, and demonstrate why public investments in higher education benefit everyone.

It looks like the results are what ACE wanted them to be.

ACE president, Molly Corbett Broad, told the Chronicle of Higher Education, “It’s a very interesting statement that distinguishes between higher education in the abstract, or health care in the abstract, and how you experienced college yourself or how the doctor cared for you. What we think is most telling is what our paying customers say their experience was.”

Of course, another way of looking at this is that people tend to be more objective when their judgments don’t call into question the wisdom of their own judgments. The survey-takers offer a picture-perfect instance of rationalization at work.  But they aren’t the only ones proclaiming the ineffable sweetness of lemons.  President Broad’s confidence in the satisfaction of “our paying customers” is just as sweet.

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