Lieber’s guidance attends closely to all of these effects. The book explains in detail how to apply for need-based aid, how to use publicly available data sets (down to columns and rows) to predict the merit aid that students will most likely receive, and how to appeal and bargain for more. Lieber reminds parents that they may be substantially richer than the financial aid officers they are bargaining with, so that both decency and prudence counsel against making entitled demands. He also advises parents on how to save for college: Begin early, use the tax-preferred vehicles that states offer and commit future increases in income to college savings first. Don’t blame yourself if you end up with less than absolutely enough. And, most important, “try not to let the complexity of it all paralyze you into doing nothing at all to get ready.”
Lieber repeatedly visits the hierarchies that dominate both higher education and the jobs that colleges send their graduates to do. Students compete for admission to the most desirable colleges, and schools compete to enroll the most desirable applicants, in an absurdly intense two-way matching system. The engine draws fuel from the fact that hierarchies at work have grown alongside hierarchies in schools, so that it matters both that you go to college and which college you attend.