A degree is a degree is a degree … right?
Depends on who you ask. Employers have a tendency to prefer applicants that attended regionally accredited colleges and universities over those who took classes at nationally accredited schools, which are generally for profit and have a tendency to be considered subpar.
Reputation also plays a role in some cases. Most people would agree that Harvard, Yale, and Columbia have a more impressive ring to them than, say, Affordable State University or Small Town Community College.
But just as with luxury automobiles and designer handbags, prestigious colleges and universities come with a price to match their exclusiveness. Not everyone can afford to buy a Lexus and not everyone can afford to attend an Ivy League school, but that doesn’t stop some people from going into dizzying amounts of debt for the honor.
Why? “Students at higher end schools are taught by faculty who are leaders in their fields,” Dr. Patricia Brandt, the associate dean and director at Stanford University told USA Today in March 2011.
Elena Bajic, who founded and runs an online job search website for executives, told the newspaper that a prospective employer will look at your resume a bit closer if he or she notices an Ivy League education. Attending a big-name school can “make a candidate stand out, even before a recruiter talks to them” according to Bajic.
But attending a college that has such a good reputation does not come cheaply. If you are able to beat the low odds of being accepted, get ready to pay. According to the CNN Money college savings calculator, the average annual cost to attend an Ivy League college is over $36,600 while the average annual cost to attend a private college is over $27,600. (The same calculator states that average public college tuition is roughly $12,800).
US News points out that a hefty sticker price doesn’t necessarily mean the high amount is what a student will wind up paying. Even students who opt to attend top ranked colleges and expensive schools are often the recipients of merit scholarships and need-based financial aid. Some families even open special college savings accounts when children are young and utilize those funds.
But statistics from The Project on Student Debt, an initiative of the Institute for College Access and Success, show that 66% of the class of 2011 had student loan debt, which averaged over $26,000 per person. CNN writes of graduates with $100,000 or more in student loans , dubbed “super borrowers,” but also points out that the Federal Reserve Bank of New York says super borrowers represent just 3% of total borrowers across the country.
Even if they represent a tiny percentage of all students carrying loan debt, the figures are still terrifying and causing some young adults to opt for less expensive alternatives. The Wall Street Journal profiled one financially-savvy student who was accepted at Cornell but decided to attend CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College for free because he planned on attending medical school down the road. He is in good company—according to WSJ, more and more students are choosing less expensive schools or living at home and commuting rather than opting for dorm life.
A 2011 Investopedia article republished on NBC’s TODAY points out that while an Ivy League education—or attending another prestigious or expensive college—is deemed worth it by many simply due to name recognition, that pricy degree may or may not lead to a higher salary over the years.
One 1999 study found that Ivy League grads earned nearly 40% more than their counterparts who attended “second-tier schools,” but another study conducted that same year found that students with grades and test scores high enough to earn them Ivy League admittance earned just as much money after attending cheaper colleges instead.
If this is true, it may be due to the fact that not all careers pay equally. Teachers generally earn far less than engineers, and even a Harvard degree probably won’t help an elementary school teacher bring home double the salary.
So in reality, there is no definite yes or no answer when wondering if an expensive college is worth the cost. If your family has the means to pay for it, perhaps it is the right thing for you to do. If you will be saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt for years to come after graduation, a less expensive private school or a public state school may be the better option.
Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.
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