Dr. Elaine Heffner: Bigger bang for the buck

Dr. Elaine Heffner More Content Now

In recent years the focus of education has shifted from placing value on liberal arts to an emphasis on science and technology. Also, with the high cost of education and mounting student debt, greater value is now being placed on how education translates into higher earnings.

Reflecting this shift, President Obama admonished those who do the ranking for their focus on Ivy League schools. He spoke out publicly saying, “Rate them on who’s offering the best value so students and taxpayers get a bigger bang for their buck.”

Money Magazine has now released college rankings based more on return on investment. Their goal is to give students and parents better information about which colleges will provide real value for tuition dollars and enhance a student’s earning potential. The top school on the list is Babson College in Massachusetts that offers only a bachelor’s in business.

There is nothing wrong with going to business school, but this presupposes that a high school senior is clear about the future direction in which he or she would like to move. This leaves no room for personal growth or expanding interests but it also negates the idea that education is for any purpose other than maximizing one’s income.

The changing purpose of education seems in part to be related to a recurring idea that issues of poverty and economic inequality are to be solved by education. Added to concern about rising inequality in our own country is concern about global competition and educational superiority of other countries. Increasingly, education is being asked to serve ends other than the growth and potential of the individual student. And yet it is the creativity nurtured by education in the past that has been a source of national strength.

In his book, “A Chinaman’s Chance: One Family’s Journey and the Chinese American Dream,” Eric Liu writes that he cannot recall his parents ever telling him to study harder, demanding that he get great grades or impressing on him the need to excel in all things. They were not “Tiger parents”.

He takes issue with Amy Chua (the “Tiger Mom”) and Jed Rubenfeld who in their book “The Triple Package,” say success is simply a matter of culture. They would argue that Liu has achieved because of a civilization superiority complex and ability to defer gratification created by his Chinese culture. His argument is that by ascribing primary importance to ethnic culture one can easily overlook the fact that “the most powerful generator of poverty and disadvantage is poverty and disadvantage, and that wealth and advantage are similarly self-reinforcing.”

Liu says that while he has worked hard he was born with advantages. Although not having grown up wealthy he started with a family history of success and skill. He writes that he “began [his] American life with a nice allotment of opportunity.” The question he raises for America is why more Americans, Chinese or otherwise, do not have the allotment he had, and asks why access to opportunity is actually narrowing.

Liu’s point is that our success as a nation will not be measured by whether our GDP is greater than China’s but by the degree to which we manage to break up monopolies of opportunity in our own country. There is far more talent here than is ever noticed or activated.

The question for parents is whether the education of their children takes notice and activates their talents. This is where parents must believe in their children and be their advocates. Dollars may not be the most valuable “bang for the buck” after all.

Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine,, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: the Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: the Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at