Question: I am a junior and have a very strong GPA and SAT scores. My guidance counselor told me I could definitely get into an Ivy League school--which i would love to do--but that I could get a full scholarship at a lower-ranked school. My parents make a decent living, so we probably wouldn't get a whole lot of aid, but we can't afford an Ivy League tuition on our own. Is the debt and outside scholarship work worth it, or should I go to a less prestigious school? Would the Ivy League education make a difference in the end, or would the debt outweigh the benefits?
This is a good question but it's also one where, if you ask it 100 different times, you'll probably get 100 replies, and they'll all sound like cop-outs. That is, there are no easy answers, and the best is probably "It depends."
What does it depend on? For starters, it depends on your background. For instance, if you come from a small town, a blue-collar family, or from any environment that might be labeled "parochial" or "provincial," then the horizon-broadening contacts and experiences you'll find at an Ivy League institution may be well worth the debt you accrue to go there. But that's only if you're a person who feels comfortable making the kind of transition that this might entail. I know of some students with Ivy potential who preferred to attend less prestigious (and less costly) colleges for their undergrad years then--after making their mark there academically--were able to land coveted spots in Ivy League graduate programs. So, you have to ask yourself, "Will I be most comfortable and successful among hyper-achieving peers at an elite college or would I rather stand out in a less competitive crowd?"
Another consideration: While Ivy League colleges offer only need-based aid for which you may not qualify, there are a number of very fine institutions that offer merit aid. While they may not be Ivies or among those most commonly considered Ivy equivalents (e.g., Amherst, Williams, Stanford, MIT, Swarthmore), there are plenty of excellent and renowned places that might offer you an attractive scholarship and may even be better matches for you than an Ivy. In other words, you don't have to abandon prestige entirely to get non-need-based aid.
Moreover, I read a study a little while back that followed the careers and earnings of students who attended Ivy League institutions about 25 years ago along with the careers and earnings of others who were accepted by Ivy schools but enrolled elsewhere. The study contended that the Ivy alums were no more "successful" (at least from a financial standpoint) than those who could have enrolled but didn't.
While it often seems that for every study that has one outcome, there's another with opposing results, I think it's safe to say that you can have a happy and fruitful life regardless of where you go to college. You should keep an open mind and check out a range of places: Ivies and otherwise. Put special emphasis on good schools with merit-aid offerings. Athletic scholarships aside, merit aid most often goes to students whose "numbers" (grades, rank, test scores) are significantly higher than those of the typical entering freshman. So keep that in mind as you determine where you might be a merit-aid contender.
Finally, you began by saying that your guidance counselor told you that you can "definitely" get into an Ivy League school. That's a pretty powerful statement. I've been in this business for nearly 20 years, and rarely can I be that certain about an Ivy aspirant. The process is simply too competitive and often capricious. (Of course, you did spell "definitely" correctly--a rarity among today's high school students. That alone should make you an Ivy shoo-in. :-) ) If you are indeed such a strong candidate, then all the more reason to look at both Ivies and merit-aid institutions. Visit as many campuses as you can. Spend the night when possible, and then you may be able to answer your own question when it's time to make a final decision.