Are Ivy League Schools Worth the Price?

If your child received a scholarship to attend a state school and was also accepted to an Ivy League school, which one would you choose?

A mom posed this question to Washington Post columnist Michelle Singletary. Here is what Singletary had to say:

I think you stand your financial ground. You are right. She’s young and irresponsible and likely sees that Ivy League school much like she sees brand-name jeans. It’s a must have.

But that’s not true. You can live a great life and get a fulfilling job without going to a brand-name school. I just don’t get this thinking our culture has passed on to young folks that college is worth the cost at any price tag.

It’s not. And I have dozens and dozens of e-mails, letters and testimonies from broke college graduates who are struggling financially that prove otherwise.

I wouldn’t turn down a scholarship to a good school. In fact, I didn’t. I got a full scholarship to my state school, the University of Maryland at College Park. Initially I didn’t want to go. My preference was to go out of state, but my grandmother would have none of that. Big Mama was right. I received a great education and ended up working at the Post alongside colleagues from Ivy League schools, and my path to the paper wasn’t any harder than theirs.

Stick to your word and if she wants to borrow the amount of money it takes to get through an Ivy League school without a scholarship or grant, let her be hardheaded and spend decades trying to pay off that debt. Let her take the hit and experience the consequences of her decision. As Big Mama used to say: “A hard head will make for a soft behind.”

LOL! I love that last line. Do you agree?


60 thoughts on “Are Ivy League Schools Worth the Price?

  1. Educational debt

    Since I’ll be paying off my top-tier law school debt til I die, I of course have to say go with the school that provides the best bang for your buck. If you can go to a state university and escape debt-free, that is the way to go. IMO, undergraduate degrees don’t matter a whole lot if you’re planning on getting an advanced degree anyway.

    My husband makes close to 3x as much as me (even when I worked full time) and he went to a super cheap state school at an auxiliary campus. He didn’t even major in his field of work.  He has no educational debt.

    • Second that

      While neither DH nor I went to top tier schools, per se, we have a ton of educational debt.  It’s easily the equivalent of a mortgage payment.  If someone offers to finance your education, take it.  

  2. I have a distinct bias…

    As I was educated at Stanford and Harvard. I absolutely, unequivically, believe that an elite eduction is worth the price (although elite includes more than just Ivy League, and, for some reasons, I don’t think Ivy League is necessarily the best.  Stanford undergrad had some things going for it that Harvard could not match).

    If all you wanted was the information you would gain by taking the courses needed for your degree, it would not matter.  A good teacher, using a good text book, can teach you great material no matter what school you attend.  

    But there is so much more to a college education than just the material you learn in class.  There is the atmosphere (quest for knowledge vs. learning just the facts), the quality of the rest of the student body (I’d say I learned more from debating with my peers than listening to my professors), access to premier researchers and thinkers in your field (I know, not limited to elite universities, but more like to find Nobel physicists at an elite school than your neighborhood community college).  The challenging environment of an elite university is not for everyone, but it does produce a qualitatively different kind of education than one where the learning environment is more limited.

    And then there is the alumni network and job screening factor.  On the rare occassions that I have the chance to hire, I do look first at educational background. It serves as a pre-screen.  If I know the school, or the scholars the student worked with, it provides added information.  I know people at all kinds of schools, but I do have a bias for those who come from elite schools.  Maybe not fair, but true.

    As for the money issue. I did get through my elite education with lots of loans and grants.  My parents could not afford to pay, so an unassisted elite education was never an option (they did, however, pay from my sister’s first few years, then they ran out of money when I needed it most….) When I was applying to grad schools, my dad specifically said I had to take the school with the greatest financial offer, unless I could justify not doing so.  I applied to 5 schools, got offered 2 free rides, and I went to the school with the smallest offer.  I did manage to justify it (based on the quality of the expertise in my chosen field, not the fact that it was “Harvard”). I also asked for financial aid 5 times in 2 years, and took out lots of loans.  I paid for my choice.  But it was most certainly the best choice because, even now, almost 30 years later, my educational credentials (based as much on who I know as what I know) headline my professional resume.

    • trying to figure the financials…

      30 years ago what was the cost of harvard/stanford?  my worry today is private universities are many times $50 per year all in.  $200k debt just seems out of whack …what was it 30 years ago?

        • You have to also ask who pays full price

          For example, at Harvard, I recall that they are extending significant financial aid to families with incomes up to $180k, with families earning under $60k getting full rides. So then the actual annual cost is probably not the $45k for most families.

    • I think we have a similar experience

      Attending a small, elite school was the right thing for me at the time. Some of the same opportunities might have been available for me at UCLA, but I was, at 17, not really ready to stand up for myself the way I would have had to in that environment of 50,000 students. At Caltech, the environment is set up so that you live and breathe science 24×7 – and to me that was more important than the classwork per se. And as a blonde female engineer, there was no hiding. 😉

      But, for many people, that was not the right environment at all. The intensity was too much. There are plenty of kids who should never go to such a school. So as much as anything else, it’s about matching the kid appropriately to the right school.

      And finally, as I alluded to in my other post, sometimes the elite universities aren’t actually more expensive because they generally have more access to financial aid funding,  especially for students who are already enrolled and successful. (One of the ways schools are ranked is in student retention and graduation percentages.) When I was at Caltech, they didn’t want to lose anyone due to mere finances, and they were very good at being able to find ways to make the money work out. But, I have no idea if it is still that way.

    • Maybe I’m being punchy but…

      And then there is the alumni network and job screening factor.  On the rare occassions that I have the chance to hire, I do look first at educational background. It serves as a pre-screen.  If I know the school, or the scholars the student worked with, it provides added information.  I know people at all kinds of schools, but I do have a bias for those who come from elite schools.  Maybe not fair, but true.

      I wonder how many great applicants you missed out on with that strategy.

      • me, too

        I was thinking the same thing. I know very few people who attended top tier schools — and the few that I do know are not any more successful, smart, talented or hard-working than the majority of my friends who did not. In fact, a couple of the very smartest people I know went to small church-affiliated colleges.

      • Truly.

        Seems a little short-sighted. I think after working for many years, your actual work experience should headline the res, not the degree. I haven’t put my degree first on my resume since law school, when I didn’t have any experience to talk about anyway.

        I don’t think Ivy League schools are the only ones that can provide top academic experiences, either. Ohio (my home state) is chock-full of small liberal arts schools that pride themselves on their challenging academic environments without being Ivy-League (and the ‘tude and price tag that goes with that).

      • My worst hire ever…

        Was this guy from Cornell.  And I’m sorry, because I’ve had fantastic hires from Cornell, but this guy acted like such an entitled jerk and never wanted to do any work…  Drove me bonkers.

        Best hire ever – a woman who did community college for 2 years and then finished for 2 years at Michigan.  (And yes I’m a Michigan alum but I promise this isn’t bias:-)  

        I do think that education should be part of what you evaluate but only a piece – if it’s a lower tier school with minimal work experience, etc. then by all means pre-screen.  But I really try not to pre-screen on only one thing. (This comes up all the time with admissions for the PhD program I’m in when there’s a huge debate on GRE/GMAT and GPA and who knows what… many people use only one as a pre-screen…  surprising)

  3. i wouldn’t let me kid do it…

    we had this discussion recently about a friend of dd’s who turned down money to go to the private school she had her heart set on.  she will take out significant loans.  personally i wouldn’t let my kid that that path.  however you can only do that if you are contributing to  the college education, otherwise, you have no leverage.

  4. I think it really depends

    I think the big name schools are worth some premium. (Keep in mind I am a graduate of one.) In my case, though, I graduated with small debt and in fact I was probably better off financially at the expensive private school with an ample endowment and ample cheap housing than I would have been at UCLA, which raised prices through the roof during my college years, and where housing is expensive and generally something you have to work out for yourself.

    But, some of the loan balances that kids are graduating with are way off the charts. I graduated $10,000 in debt, not $100,000.

    What I think is beneficial is finding a school that has good opportunities for networking and interaction. Classes are important, but the people you meet and the faculty you work with are probably more so. If you’re in science, having the chance to do research as an undergraduate is a huge advantage. You have to match your personality to the school and your major as well. There are many great departments at large schools where you’ll have a chance to get in and make connections. But, it may require more focus.

    Finally, I think there’s value in picking a school that is where you want to be. Networking opportunities will always be strongest in the local area around a college.

    • Networking

      Such a good point. So many movers and shakers in my hometown of Cleveland went to Cleveland State– amazing how many high-profile execs and attorneys got their degrees there instead of the Ivy League. Local colleges can provide excellent networking opportunities if you want to stay in the area.

      • Right, and I, even with my Caltech degree

        would probably have a harder time finding a job there if that’s where I wanted to be than if I had the local college degree.

  5. I have 2 years left on my BA

    and I’d really like to try and get into a graduate program at an Ivy or upper tier school.

    Can I confess here on the internet that I really regret not working harder in high school? I would have been awesome at college I see now. I have a 3.7 GPA and professors love me and tell me all the time how I elevate their courses and I get invited to attend master’s classes. The poet laureate of NC, Fred Chappell once called one of my short stories, “a little piece of genius…” I would have ROCKED at a good school, I would have been all RORY GILMORE up in there.

    So yeah, I will probably never go to grad school, much less a super elite grad school, but it’s nice to dream. :)

    • Education is wasted on the young

      I did really week in high school and college and relatively well in law school, but I feel like I was just going through the motions. I think I would get so much more out of advanced education now than I did at 19, 21, 23. I wish it were easier to take time after high school to do something else, and save your education for when you know more about yourself and life.

      • you could have

        followed my path and stayed in school more or less continuously until age 40 😉

        It’s definitely true that I became more focused as I got older and got to know myself better, but I was always a very curious student. I know that when I have more time I’ll return to our community college. I’d like to try advanced math again (didn’t go too well the first time!), and take some other languages, and….

      • I didn’t get my masters

        until I was 25. It made a huge difference, I think. Firstly, I had been in the job market a few years and had started to home in on what I wanted to write and how a masters could help me there. Secondly, because I’d had some time off, I was hungry to study again. And finally, because I was paying for the degree myself (instead of scholarships and parental support), I darn well appreciated what I was doing!

        Now, it’s been six years since I finished the last degree and I’m thinking again of what I’d like to do! Having become a mom in the interim, I think I’ve got a whole new skill set to bring to the table!

    • It’s probably your maturity

      I’ve taught traditional-aged students at a decent school and adult students at a satellite night campus. Hands down, my best students are the adults.  It’s not just the organization and responsiblity they bring. They are so much better at seeing the big picture, having the confidence to contribute their experiences and opinions, and realizing education as a partnership.  Everyone asks me if I want to teach full-time at a community college when my kids are in school, but I don’t know.  I’m not sure I can handle the attitude of 18- to 21-year-olds.

    • We talk about this all the time

      Older grad students seem to be more focused because they KNOW why they’re there.  And then there’s the different levels of contributions from students who are younger vs. those in the executive programs.  It’s interesting.

      If you do seriously start the application process, let me know.  I’ve been on more admission committees here (mind you in the business school but some things are comparable!) and would be happy to have you bounce stuff off me.  Although pending the week you may or may not want to talk to me about grad school – sometimes I love it and sometimes I think it was the biggest mistake.  But, now that I’m in my 5th year, I am definitely finishing.  And since I’m at an elite school I should have a much better chance at a faculty job.  (Without kids I’d have been able to go through debt free.  Daycare costs suck!)  But some aspects of the elite school are harder – faculty can be really spread thin or not as committed to graduate students, etc.  Some aspects are great.  I guess it depends :-)

    • only if I can

      Can I confess here on the internet that I really regret not working harder in high school?

      Amen.  Absolutely.  I would be on a completely different career track in my field if I had gone to an elite school.  I kick myself for closing that door when I didn’t even realize what I was doing.  And that right there will be my big motivational speech to my kids in school–don’t close doors before you even know you want them open!

  6. SUNY Ithaca

    A fairly well kept secret is that Cornell University has several undergraduate colleges that are state funded. The tuition is a little higher than in the rest of the state university system. The statutory units are the only reason I was even interested in Cornell. I don’t believe in big-name schools if there’s a good alternative. (And yes, I know people don’t think of that one when they think Ivy League, so much the better.)

    I should mention that I went in not sure what I wanted to do with myself – uhh, pre-med maybe? – and had crap study skills, and got very lucky (came out with a communication degree, which my sister points out could’ve been done anywhere). My brother went to Case Western Reserve for biomedical engineering, came out with a degree in operations research, and is a systems architect (IT). My sisters both went to the same small Jesuit college, with scholarships (one partial and one full), and got good educations also.
    Having said all that, if our kids want to go to a big-name school they’d better be earning scholarships or getting aid. And we need to save more for them than we have been.

  7. state school! state school!

    i had a great experience.  no one cares where you do your undergrad.  if you want to go to an ivy, save it for law school or your MBA (when hopefully your employer will pay for it, or part of it!)  i will personally encourage my kids to only apply to state schools or community college for undergrad.

    • well

      don’t discount the fact that private schools often have a lot to offer in scholarships and grants. At least, the one I graduated from (Baylor) did.

      • true but…

        at least for us we would never have qualified for financial aid of any kind. i admit i wince at the notion of spending $200k for an undergrad college education. in fact, it makes me ill.  dd chose UCLA as it was half the price of private universities.  now if she had gotten into Pomona College i suppose there might have been a family discussion all around…as it would have not only been a good fit for her but is an excellent school.  but i would never have let her go with even half of that expense in loans.

        for those of us with college bound kids or those in college the process is simply brutal right now.  i think it was easier before and certainly not the expense we see today.

        i believe grad school is where you invest that kind of dough.

        • you’re right

          in that things are completely different now than in 1979 when I was applying to colleges.

          And I had the advantage (?) of having both parents who were public school teachers, and a brother who was in college at the same time — so I qualified for financial aid that was not available to everyone.

    • So true

      We just went through this with our oldest and are now working with our 2nd child.  

      Biggest Ivy pro: the network…but you can go to grad school, law school, etc after a state school and reap the same benefit.  

      As an aside, there are a bunch of kids at our HS looking at the same Ivy (they do offer lots of athletic and academic scholarships).  One turned down an 8K/year offer at that particular Ivy to attend a large, state school for free.  In her case, the Ivy didn’t offer the math and science core degree she wanted for future studies.  

  8. It’s a parents responsibility to be knowledgeable

    and help guide a kid through a hard headed choice. I don’t know if loans are something an 18 year old fully grasps. Maybe figuring out how much that loan will charge, then figuring what starting salaries are, and rent and utilities… all that might make it more real. Also explaining that loans continue to grow if you’re not paying them, so if you don’t get a job right away you might get a deferment but that doesn’t stop interest… kids don’t know.

    My parents figured out how much they could afford, how much MY loan would be and told me nothing. I chose my school over Loyola because I was told they “cost the same”- except they didn’t, my loan for my school was more than my loan would have been for Loyola, the monthly cost at the time was “the same”. So I wound up with bigger debt than I expected and that may very well have swayed me if I’d been privy to any of that before I graduated.

  9. In retrospect

    I think one of the greatest predictors of success in college is coming in knowing what you want to study.  Then you can choose a college based at least partly on the department and have some idea what the degree is going to get you.

    I really didn’t know what I wanted to do or study.  I ended up at the best/cheapest (state) school in our state, really the only option available to me at the time.  I got in some high quality private schools but could not afford to go.

    I am going to encourage my kids to think a little longer term if possible, or be a little more goal oriented than I was and hopefully that will help guide them toward some college options that may be useful in the long term as well as enjoyable at the time.

  10. I agree with those who say a big name

    can pay off.  I’ve definitely gotten job opportunities partly because people were impressed by the schools I went to. And frankly my undergrad major I could have done much better elsewhere, including at the (big name, public) university where I did my MA. But being surrounded 24/7 by people who like to debate geeky things for fun? Only ever having taken 3 large-group lectures? Never having an instructor who was less than a full PhD? Getting to meet Jane Goodall in a private lecture? I wouldn’t have gotten that by going to the local school.

    I came out with $35K in debt (having gotten somewhere on the order of $50-60K in grants), and it was totally worth it. That includes both undergrad and grad school, but I was in-state for grad school.

    • There is a big difference between

      35K debt and 150K debt. 35K is reasonable. 150K, IMO, is not. It’s a house.

      These days, we are more likely talking 150K for an elite school.

      • yeah

        To me, affordability has to be one of the top issues to consider. In thinking about it, the cache/networking of going to an elite/Ivy League school is a plus. But saddling yourself with more than $100,000 in debt for that cache, severely limits your post-graduation options.

        I speak here as having gone to a non-Ivy, non-state private university – so all of the tuition pain, none of the “elite” cred. But part of the reason I chose BU was the fact that there was a scholarship on offer. I graduated with no debt (thanks Mom and Dad) and was able to do things like move to Paris when I was 23 and not work for six months while getting a work visa in place. If I had keep paying the loan, I probably never would have left the US.

        So yeah, going to a school with an elite brand is a consideration, but balancing it out with the knowledge of decades of debt-paying has to be another one.

        • and to think that

          people do that for grade school and high school!! $15-20K per year down here for private school!! holy cannoli. I won’t do it.
          And yeah, after your first two years in the work world, nobody cares where you went to school, kid, put it at the bottom of the resume.

          • we paid for elementary..

            we sent our dd to private school k through 8.  it started out at $6kper year and by 8th it was close to $12k per year.  while we sent her to public high school, the truth is we paid for that as well.  we moved from oakland to orinda and paid a pretty penny for a new house.

            dd was torn between BU and UCLA…but at nearly $50 k per year at BU plus travel expenses…UCLA was an easy choice :)

      • The university I went to

        based its calculations on $19,000 total cost (tuition, room, board, books, etc.) then and it’s $21,000 now.  And it’s elite enough that it gets gasps when I tell people I went there.

        I’m not saying $150K in debt is reasonable (I mean, I turned down Cornell, which at the time was $35K, and that was cheap because I was applying to one of the state-funded schools mentioned elsewhere). I’m saying going to an elite school can be both a much better experience if you’re serious about academia and also be a big help later on. But you can get an elite experience for not a ton of cash. Even today (assuming $21K isn’t what you consider a ton of cash … of that I got about half in grants, ¼ in loans, ¼ my parents and I paid out of pocket).

        • My elite education

          cost my parents around $10,000, and then left me with $10,000 in loans. I also did some work study to earn about another $10k during that time.

          I thank Gordon and Betty Moore (of Intel) for picking up a substantial portion of the rest.

    • I think it depends

      I went to a University of California school (large, public school) and had all the things you list (except Jane Goodall – though we had  Souxie and the Banshees. 😉  

      I had very few big lectures, my friends were geeks who debated crazy things for fun, I never had less than a PhD teach my courses, etc…

      Maybe it’s place-specific because I think that, at least in California, unless you’re looking do to something very specific that you need a certain undergrad degree for, you can’t do better than the UC system for far, far less money than a private school.

  11. no they’re not.

    can i just say i know this because i went to cornell?  

    ok- i obviously didn’t graduate, but i did go there for a while.

    i think i’m the cautionary tale you should be telling your children.

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