The Price of College

by Casey Barrett

Missy Franklin and the Value of the Undergrad Degree

To have problems like these… Option A: Accept a full scholarship to any university in America. Soak up school’s eternal gratitude. Win many NCAA titles. Have time of your life. Option B: Accept prize money and untold endorsements. Win a few gold medals in London. Appear on Wheaties box. Earn far more than that college scholarship was “worth.”

A champagne problem indeed. A truly diamond-studded dilemma… This is what is currently facing 16-year-old high school junior Missy Franklin. She’s the best American female swimmer since Janet Evans, and she’s earned this difficult choice by virtue of her astonishing talent. While I have never met the girl, everything I have seen, heard, and read indicates that she is a smart and grateful young athlete. I think she gets it, and I think she appreciates that there are worse problems to have.

It is a rare and privileged decision to face, yet it is hardly a can’t-lose choice. The possibility of regret looms large on both sides. What if I win big in London and turn down millions that I might never see again? Just for the chance to have the college swimming experience? What if I take the plunge and accept the money and then get hurt? Or simply lose the fire or the mojo required to win gold medals? This is hardly NBA-contract guaranteed money. The real money in swimming (what little there is of it) is incentive-laden to the extreme. It’s what-have-you-done-for-me-lately. Stop winning, stop earning…

Nonetheless, don’t you wish you could have had such a choice at 16?

While this question affects a miniscule population of the obscenely talented, their rare choice shines a light on a much wider question, one that affects every college student who does not have the luxury of a scholarship or parents wealthy enough to pay their way. That is – what am I paying for? And, more importantly, is it worth it?

That’s the real question of value, isn’t it? The essential balancing act that determines the price of everything. In every story written about athletes turning pro and forgoing college, you tend to see the same numbers bandied about. The price of college is often cited as “as much as $200,000” – meaning the tuition of top schools being around fifty grand a year these days. But this is a prime example of basing value on the literal rather than the actual. Something we all do, lazily, because it’s easier. How much did Speedo offer you? $100K? Well, a Stanford scholarship is “worth” twice that.

Apologies for the continued use of quotation marks around the word “worth”, but this number is ridiculous. Here’s why: there is nothing more overpriced in America today than the cost of an undergraduate degree. If universities were stocks, I would short liberal arts colleges with every penny I have. What you get out is very often not what you put in. Or at least, not until that debt is paid off so many years later… It’s a bad investment for its current going rate.

This argument is hardly news. It’s one of the many grievances of the angry folks trying to occupy Wall Street. Higher education costs too much and it doesn’t offer any decent return. Due to this imbalance, three things could happen: 1. Tuition prices go down. 2. Post-graduation salaries go up. 3. Many kids stop attending college altogether. Any guess on the most likely scenario?

So, this would make Missy Franklin’s choice much easier, right? The value of that scholarship is absurdly inflated, so why not take the endorsement and prize money – income that is actual.

But there’s the sad irony. While the cost of an undergraduate degree, in tuition terms, is grossly overpriced, the value of the collegiate athletic experience may be the most undervalued thing on any college campus. Hell, they’re cutting many of the programs that offer the highest return!

College swimmers, where do you think you’re going to meet the lead to your first employer? Where might you meet the friend you later start a business with? What network will you tap into if you wind up out of work at 30 and needing an in? Clue: Don’t expect your degree to open many doors…

I know, these aren’t exactly variables that should enter the mind of a talented 16-year-old. She should be thinking about the experience, the friendships that will be forged, the energy of an NCAA team standing as one, shoulder to shoulder along the edge of a pool, waving a teammate home in the heat of a close race… These are things that are impossible to value is financial terms. Or are they? Because many of those moments can and will transfer into career-making opportunities.

Regret is not an emotion often admitted by elite athletes. When things don’t go exactly as planned, you tend to hear the “I wouldn’t change a thing” line, the “it made me who I am” denials. Fair enough. I wouldn’t admit it either. But the precedent of regret after turning pro is hard to miss. Especially among female swimmers.

Back in the early 1990’s, I was growing up alongside the Missy Franklin of that era, a breaststroke phenom named Anita Nall. A year apart, we were friends and teammates on the North Baltimore Aquatic Club. At the 1992 Olympic Trials, 15-year-old Anita broke the world record in the 200 breaststroke – twice in one day.  She was the golden girl of the moment, the young charmed face of the American team heading into the Barcelona Games. Faced with sudden professional opportunities, she took the money and decided to forgo her NCAA eligibility.

In Barcelona, she had a good meet. But not a great one… A best time and an American record in the 100 breast, good enough for silver. A gold as a part of the women’s 4 x 100 medley relay. But in the 200 breast, the event she was expected to dominate, she was just slightly off her best. She missed the gold by 2-tenths of a second and had to settle for bronze. She was never the same swimmer after that. There were reasons, valid ones like chronic fatigue, but she had missed her window, by 23-100ths of a second.

An individual gold medal is where it’s at, the price of admission really, if you’re talking about a “pro” swimming career paying off. Sixteen years after Anita’s near miss in Barcelona, another high school pro from NBAC was forced to face the same reality. In 2008, Katie Hoff arrived in Beijing with an albatross of expectations weighing over her. The female Phelps, we called her. It wasn’t fair maybe, but she’d earned it. She was the best female swimmer on the planet in the early summer of 2008. But by late summer, after her Games had ended, Hoff, like Anita Nall, was no longer the same swimmer. They both exited the Olympics with three medals, none of them individual gold.

Of course, NBAC also produced the ultimate example, the one career scripted by the gods. In Olympic waters, not much has ever gone wrong for Michael Phelps. No need to recite the litany of greatest hits. The money he’s made makes these pro vs college debates completely moot. But that took how many gold medals? Maybe that shooting star destiny awaits Missy Franklin in London. Maybe it won’t be any decision at all. But more likely, it will come down to a difficult question of value.

College might be overpriced, but college swimming remains the deal of a lifetime.