Is Going to an Elite College Worth the Cost?

Jacques Steinberg, a writer who addresses education issues for the New York Times wrote a story called “Is Going to an Elite College Worth the Cost?”  I’m sure it’s something that crosses the mind of every parent of a high school senior and perhaps a few students as well.

When I wrote the section of my website about “Paying for College” I cited a 2008 article in SmartMoney Magazine where they looked at salaries of college graduate 3 years and 15 years out of college. They found that the best financial returns were for State schools.  I also quote a 1999 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research where the authors indicated: "...we find that students who attended more selective colleges earned about the same as students of seemingly comparable ability who attended less selective schools." The same study also indicated that: "Children from low-income families, however, earned more if they attended selective colleges."

The Steinberg article quotes a study that indicates: “Grouping colleges by the same tiers of selectivity used in a popular college guidebook, Barron’s, the researchers found that alumni of the most selective colleges earned, on average, 40 percent more a year than those who graduated from the least selective public universities, as calculated 10 years after they graduated from high school.”  That’s pretty impressive, but clearly other studies don’t point in the same direction.

So here are my suggestions, the decision should depend on how you describe your family and what the student will be studying:

1.       If you’re considering an elite private school and the school gives you a substantial financial aid package, then give an elite college serious consideration.

2.       If you’re extremely wealthy and the $200,000 plus expense of a college education is not a lot of money to you, by all means go to an elite school.

3.       If you’re a middle income family and the thought of borrowing thousands of dollars to fund the education seems overwhelming, give some thought to what the student will be studying?

          a.      If the student is studying the sciences or some other field where research is critical, consider that the elite schools may have better lab facilities and more contacts in industry.  That’s of significant value.  Of course you shouldn’t assume every elite school has great facilities, you need to check it out.

          b.      If the student is planning on studying English, philosophy, mathematics or any one of a number of other fields that don’t require the substantial resources that an elite school can provide, look for a school that has an accessible and supportive faculty that can help the student develop in the field.

          c.      If the student is studying physical education or any sports related field, a school with a great team may be a better choice than an elite college.

Another suggestion from Steinberg’s piece is that a large state university with a substantial alumni group “may play a disproportionate role in deciding who gets which jobs in a state in a variety of fields”.

Finally, Steinberg’s piece quotes Alexander C. McCormick, a former admissions officer at Dartmouth and currently an associate professor at Indiana University: “Everything we know from studying college student experiences and outcomes tells us that there is more variability within schools than between them”.  So whether you’re looking a big state school or an elite university, make sure the department the student is interested in will provide the tools necessary for success.