The Cost of College: Does a Higher Price Tag Mean Better Quality?

Have you ever wondered if a high price tag means that a certain college delivers a high-quality education? Let’s examine some issues.

Higher education is a lot like any other consumer product. In most cases, you get what you pay for. Aside from its Nobel-laureate-laden faculty, one aspect of the top-priced schools that struck me recently while walking the grounds of a picturesque Ivy League university is the advantages of a quality physical plant. By this I mean modern facilities: newer classroom buildings, clean and shiny living accommodations, sophisticated sports facilities, comfortable (and don’t forget tasty) dining amenities, and so forth. You can’t appreciate the value of such things unless you’ve attended an institution where the facilities aren’t up to par. The nice stuff isn’t cheap, though.

This fall, the nation’s most expensive schools will have student budgets (tuition, room and board, fees, books, and travel) hovering in the low fifty-thousand-dollar range. That’s right–$50,000 or so. That’s more than many families bring in for one year. These are not just the Ivy League schools. Some highly selective, “non-Ivy” colleges and universities have price tags in that region.

Other colleges and universities, such as two-year, community commuter schools, can cost as little as $10,000 or less per year. That’s about 80 percent less than the Big Guys. What’s the difference? Can one school be six-to-seven times better than another can?

It depends on what you’re looking for. Many people are looking for the least-expensive route to a professional or technical credential that can move them into a skilled job. For them, the live-at-home, commuter option makes the most sense. If you’re looking for a broader, more diversified approach to education, then some variation of the live-away-from-home choice makes sense, though it’s more expensive.

Keep in mind that expensive schools may have superior financial aid available. This can bring their net cost much closer to the lower-priced schools. One challenging theory says, “Get into the best and most expensive school you can.” Financial aid is the reason. The more expensive schools usually have more money to give in financial aid, thus making their true cost much lower for families who really need the help.

Don’t be blinded by the cost of a potential college. Once your son or daughter finds the right match, you can usually work out the finances.