"If money doesn't matter in education, why are all of the most expensive colleges among the nation's elite?"
I got quite a bit of pushback in the comments, and it wasn't really a very thoughtful comment, so I think it's appropriate to take more than one sentence to explore the issue.
First, a little background: One of the main battles in education is around funding. All sorts of people have a personal stake in the funding of schools -- from employees who want a salary boost to homeowners who want a tax break. An awful lot of the reforms that have been pushed for schools (particularly smaller class sizes and higher teacher pay among others) cost an awful lot of money. As result of both the fact that spending more on schools deprives other people of the pleasure of that money and the fact that we want our schools to be both efficient and effective, people began to ask whether money mattered in education (see here, for example).
Now, I don't think that every person who's against more school funding as a solution actually means that more money will never matter -- regardless of how much or how it's spent. Indeed, there are any number of qualifications that can be added into the statement (see here, for example). Eric Hanushek, perhaps the researcher most often associated with the phrase, is on the record as
As I was insinuating in my one-sentence thought, an awful lot of people believe that the wealthiest, most expensive colleges are also the best. If we look at a list of the colleges and universities with the largest endowments, it's pretty clear that the wealthiest institutions are the ones we consider elite. And an awful lot of people aspire(d) to attend these colleges, have attended these colleges, or have paid for their children to attend these colleges.
Regardless of whether or not these schools are actually better, the perception that they are -- and the actions resulting from that perception -- say an awful lot about our society and our beliefs.
Views of private K-12 schools are somewhat similar. Last year the NY Times ran a story on prep schools that included a list of those with the largest endowments. I'm no expert, but I recognize a number of the schools on the list. The bottom line is that parents are willing to spend money -- lots of money (over $30,000 per year, not including room and board, in some cases) -- to send their kids to the most prestigious private schools.
Well, actions speak louder than words. Clearly, our society believes that schools with more resources are better. Therefore, anybody who argues that money doesn't matter in education and then brags about their degree from Harvard is a hypocrite. And anybody who argues that boosting spending at their town's schools cannot make a difference and then writes a check for their kid's tuition at Peddie is also a hypocrite. Anybody who truly believes that money doesn't matter shouldn't participate in their school bake sale or donate money to their alma mater.
Now, I don't think it's that simple. Like I said before, the intellectual leaders of the "money doesn't matter" school of thought would make more nuanced arguments. But the general public doesn't often pick up on nuance. And the result is that a lot of people repeat the talking points without realizing there's more to the argument. And then those people become hypocrites.
Finally, let me address a few points that others have made or that I anticipate they will make:
1.) One commenter claimed that schools are like cars because spending more money than one would on a Camry cannot result in the procurement of a better car. Which is demonstrably false. Spending more money than one would on a Camry means that one can procure a car that can go 0-60 in the blink of an eye (Porsche), get 50 miles per gallon (Prius), or climb a mountain (Hummer), for example. In this case, the definition of "better" was conflated with the definition of "necessary," and that type of confusion can destroy a debate. I don't need my car to climb a mountain or go 0-60 in 4 seconds (though I would like to use less gas). I can afford to buy myself an adequate car, and I don't feel like I need anything else. My car meets my needs. But spending more money could buy me a car that's faster, stronger, safer, more efficient, and/or better at hauling things. So while I don't think that spending more money is necessary, it's not without utility.
We can make a similar argument with schools. It might not be necessary for a school to hire only teachers with doctorate degrees, cap class sizes at 5, and operate 12 hours per day 300 days per year -- but it would probably make the school better. In short, the question "is it worth it?" is separate from the question "will it make things better?"
2.) Prestige undoubtedly has a lot to do with why people spend a lot of money on schools, cars, or other goods. If somebody thought they'd receive equal educations at Harvard and East Cupcake University and money were no object, which one would they choose? Most would choose the former, if for no other reason than because other people would be more impressed by it. But therein lies the rub: somebody has to think something is better for it to be more prestigious. If everybody thought that BMW made horrible cars, who would pay the premium to buy one?
Besides, whether or not more money actually makes a school (or car) better isn't really germane to the argument. The point is that most people think that more money = better school, and their actions are proof.
3.) Yes, I consider virtually all of the colleges near the top of the largest endowment and highest tuition lists to be elite. There are about 3,000 or so colleges in our country, so I'd say at least the top 300 or so should be considered elite. I find the idea that only the top 25 or so are really elite to be . . . well, elitist.
4.) Yes, it's okay for people to argue that public schools are doing fine with their current spending levels but that they should be allowed to spend more on their kid. If you don't think the city collects recycleables often enough, you're allowed to pay an outside company to come collect them more. Everybody always wants more for their families. The distinction that I'm drawing is that one cannot simultaneously want more for their families and argue that getting more doesn't matter. It just doesn't make sense.