Is Harvard Education Worth the Price ... and the Loans?

Question: My older son was admitted to Stanford and Princeton but I convinced him to go to UCLA because he was given free tuition.

We don't qualify for any need-based scholarship and my younger son, a rising high school senior, might be facing the same situation. If, for example he gets into Harvard, would it make sense to borrow $50,000 a year or have him follow his brother's example? He is a very hard working student and it's sad that he has to settle.

You've asked a common and confusing question ... somewhere in the same league as the one about the chicken and the egg. In other words, there are no easy answers.

Over the past decade or so, folks on the College Confidential discussion forum ... and in the greater world beyond it (and, yes, there is a world beyond CC, though sometimes I tend to forget it ;) ) … have often debated this same issue: Is the value of a big-name degree worth the dough that it demands? You'll find that the answers range from emphatic yeses to equally adamant nos, and they come from not only the parents who have shelled out—or saved—big bucks, but also from students and alums who have had time to test out the fire-power of their assorted sheepskins.

My perspective? Certainly for anyone who can spend $60K per year with about the same insouciance that allows me to buy red grapes when they're not on sale at Stop & Shop, it probably makes sense to spring for the high-status alma mater. I once served on a panel with a well known 40-something Harvard alum who was asked if she felt that her degree warranted its cost. She insisted that it did, noting that “As soon as people find out where I went to college, they just assume I'm smart. They don't expect me to prove it." But she was also quick to point out that, on the road to career success, she had encountered others traveling beside her who had attended far less snazzier schools and were doing just fine nonetheless.

So for the rest of us, the waters are far murkier. Certainly UCLA is nothing to sneeze at. Its name provides as much recognition as that of an Ivy but with less prestige. If my own son faced this decision, I would first look beyond the price to see what each college offers. Factors like major, location, size, extracurriculars, etc. might make UCLA a better fit for some students than Harvard would be.

But if both schools ticked the same number of boxes on my child's list, I would only be willing to pay for the expensive college if I felt that my son desperately wanted to be there, seemed to have valid reasons for being so insistent, and if the financial burden we would have to shoulder would be manageable. While some college debt is inevitable for most families, parents need to take an objective look at exactly what this will require in their own household. For instance, what happens if a parent loses a job? What happens if the student plans to head to graduate school, especially in pricey areas like medicine and law? How much money will remain for retirement? For other children?

And how important to you is prestige? Try to be honest with yourself about that. For some people, it's worth the steep fee. But also ask yourself what fall-out you can expect if you agree to finance Harvard (or the like) for your younger son after saying no to the older one.

Finally, keep in mind that even if your older son's decision boiled down to Stanford or Princeton vs. UCLA, your younger son is just a high school junior and he need not be faced with only a similar choice. There are some colleges that are private and prestigious but which also offer full or big merit awards (e.g., Johns Hopkins, Washington University in St. Louis, Vanderbilt, Emory, Boston College, Notre Dame). So if your son is strong enough to be admitted to Harvard, he may have the option of earning a free or cheap education at other institutions besides UCLA.

Finally, if your two sons are in college concurrently, you may qualify for need-based aid, even if you didn't qualify when your older son applied for college. Have you done the Net Price Calculator on the Harvard Web site to confirm that Harvard will be as costly as you suspect? Note, too, that all colleges are now required to post a Net Price Calculator online. Although these new tools are not completely reliable, I recommend that you play around with one--or several--to see if you will really need to borrow as much as you claim.

But, ultimately, deciding how much to spend on a child's education is a very personal decision. If you tell your son that Harvard is out of reach, you may always feel sad about this choice. But, on the other hand, your son can get an excellent education at UCLA … or at countless other more affordable institutions … and I've heard plenty of complaints about Harvard (and other hyper-competitive, hyper expensive schools) so don't ever make him feel that he was merely “settling."

(posted 6/13/2012)