Paying for College

Pricey Prestigious College vs. Great Merit Money?

Question: I'm sure this question is asked again and again, but I think it's very common. I scored super high on the SAT and have a strong GPA. I have been award substantial scholarship money to so-so colleges, and some scholarship money to some big-name universities.

If a college isn't in, say, the top 30 or so, does it make a big difference which one I go to? For example, if I choose a decently-ranked Regional College over a 40ish ranked National University in order to save tens of thousands, would that be a wise choice? Assuming, of course, all else was equal as far as my liking the college and feeling that I would fit in.

You're right. This sort of question is asked often. And, just like another common query ... the one about the chicken and the egg, there are no easy answers.

Over the years, I have found two rather clearly divided camps: The first includes all those who believe that one should attend the "best" college possible (and, by "best," they usually mean the most selective and/or prestigious). But there is also another group who contend that one can get a good education almost anywhere, and there's no college worth decades of debt.

I tend to fall more squarely with the latter crowd. Unless money is no object, I’m not a big fan of going into hock or of shelling out more than one can comfortably afford to attend a pricey college … assuming, as you’ve put it, that “all else is equal” … at least more or less. In particular, you’ve asked me to compare a “decently-ranked Regional College” with a “40ish ranked National University.” So we’re not talking Ivy League vs. Nowheresville State.

A couple years ago I was on a panel with a woman who graduated from Harvard. “Ever since then,” she told the audience, “I felt as if I never had to prove to anyone that I was smart. All I had to do was to mention that I’d gone to Harvard.”

And, indeed, there is something to be said for such door-opening clout that the best-known universities provide. But once you go beyond the most widely-recognized (and respected) names, then the answer to the old “Are the more expensive colleges really worth it?” question gets a lot fuzzier, and personal preferences will play a key role in the outcome.

For some people, brand names… whether in cars, clothing, or colleges … are extremely important. I always urge students (and their parents) to be honest with themselves about the importance of prestige. As you go through life, and the topic of where you attended college comes up, will it bug you to respond with the name of a regionally ranked school that is met with blank stares? For some folks this is a big deal; for others it matters little or not at all.

And when it comes to your future beyond graduation, how much does it matter if you went to a “name” college or a lesser-known one? Well, a national university may offer better alumni connections and you may find that more corporate recruiters will come to your campus … or know of your alma mater when you apply for a job. But, at the lesser-known college, you may have a greater chance to be a star, to finish at the top of your class, and to snare sought-after faculty research assistantships or summer jobs along the way.

Over the years there has been much higher-rank vs. lower-cost debate on the College Confidential discussion forum. But I bet that, if you could dredge up all those posts, you’d find that the sides end up pretty even. And if you were to pose the question yet again, you’d spark responses from those who swear that every nickel spent at their pricey prestigious college was well worth it, and from those who say no way. Likewise, you’ll hear tales from those who have done great things in life in spite of unknown alma maters and also from those who regret not reaching higher.

So, ultimately, it comes down to what you feel is right for you and how you think those tens of thousands saved may be better spent … perhaps at a top-tier graduate school? ;)

(posted 1/26/2011)