College Brand Name = Practical Benefits?

Admission results for the current application season have already begun to arrive. Those of you who have applied Early Decision (ED) and Early Action (EA), with its various monikers, have gotten your good, bad, and delayed news. From the perch on which I sit here at College Confidential, the focus we see tends to prominently favor those applicants to the Ivy League and other so-called “elite” colleges and universities.

With well over 3,000 four-year degree-granting schools dotting our nation, the crush we see with so many applicants striving (and perhaps “striving” is too mild a word to describe the almost desperation) to grab a seat at one of these schools is at times puzzling. I often wonder about the relationship between “prestige” (whatever that means) and value. By “value,” I mean practical uses for the money spent on higher education.

The wonderful, wild world of marketing can leave us confused about what is real and what is illusion. As George asks in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, “Truth or illusion?” Another cliche cautions: “All that glitters is not gold.” Another question we might ask ourselves is: Why do high schoolers gravitate to the colleges they do when it comes application time?

Brand names always seem to cost more and house brands can be of equal (or even more preferred) quality. Take my morning oatmeal for example. My wife is the value shopper in our family. She could pay more for Quaker Oats oatmeal, and has on occasion done so when my preferred brand, Walmart’s Great Value, isn’t in stock. In comparing the two, I find little difference. It’s as if the oatmeal itself has been made by one company and then sold under different labels at different prices. That may well be the case. In any event, I like Great Value and it’s a regular feature in our kitchen cabinet.

But, is there any documentable truth to the “power” of brand-name prestige when it comes to colleges, or is it a cultural myth that appeals to young minds (and many parents), luring them onto the rocks, in a kind of Siren-called response? That’s a good question and one not easily answered. When we think of “prestigious” schools, usually the first ones to come to mind are those of the Ivy League. Can you name all the Ivies and where they’re located? Here’s a hint:

Princeton University – Princeton, New Jersey

Harvard University – Cambridge, Massachusetts

Yale University – New Haven, Connecticut

University of Pennsylvania – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Columbia University – New York, New York

Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island

Dartmouth College – Hanover, New Hampshire

Cornell University – Ithaca, New York

In addition to the Ivies, Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are also frequently included in the ultra-prestigious abbreviation: HYPSM, which stands for Harvard, Yale, Princeton (the so-called “Big Three”), Stanford, and MIT. A particularly haughty applicant or parent, when asked, “Where are you [or your son/daughter] applying?” may just glibly respond, “HYPSM.” Now that’s a prestigious answer!

I’m always curious about what others are thinking and saying about the element of prestige in college search and selection. That’s why I was intrigued by an article I found a fair while ago in the Huffington Post, written by Michael Restiano, then a senior at Tufts University. The points he brings forward are evergreen, in my view, and bear repeating, even years later.

Tufts is also considered by many to be a prestigious school. Michael posed a question in his article’s title: Prestigious Schools: Costly in the Short-Term, Valuable in the Long-Term? Let’s see if we can mine some wisdom from his rationale, which, in my opinion, is even more valid today than when he penned it several years ago. His opening sentences sound a warning and tells of a tempting opportunity:

If you’re a high-performing high school senior from a non-affluent background, I can guarantee you’ve got a big dilemma coming your way: do you choose a college because it’s affordable, or because it’s your dream school?

You’ll quickly find that a lot of the literature on this topic tends to bolster the value side of the debate–rightly so, given the pervasiveness of the student loan crisis …

The good news here, assuming of course that you, as a high-performing high school senior, can get into one of these prestigious schools, is that if the term “non-affluent” means that your family’s income is in the $65,000 (or less)-per-year neighborhood, you have a good chance at a near-to-no- or very-low-cost college education. For example:

“In 2004, Harvard inaugurated a financial aid initiative for low-income students under which families with incomes below $40,000 pay nothing toward the cost of their child’s attendance at the College. Just two years later, this benefit was extended to families with incomes below $60,000. Beginning next fall, this ceiling will be raised to $65,000. These measures place Harvard’s financial aid policy among the most generous in higher education …”

Other schools, especially those in the HYPSM group, also offer similar generous aid to needy students and their families.

Michael continues:

… If you can afford to attend a prestigious school while only taking on a small or middling amount of debt, then I think you have a valid case to forego financial prudence and chase a dream. Though you’ll take on student loans, debatably, these three things (among others) could make the debt worthwhile. For the sake of staying grounded, I’ve avoided the “fluffy” (though still important!) factors such as campus feel, social life, and extracurricular activities. 

Here are some highlights from “these three things”:

1. More Exposure to Diversity

High-powered schools attract students from across the globe, students that will ultimately look, act, and think differently than you. Coming into contact with these people and the diverse ideologies they proscribe to will do wonders for your own outlook on life. You’ll be forced to examine issues differently, question your values, and defend your beliefs; these things will make you a better thinker, and ultimately, a better person …

When my son applied to Princeton University, one of the comments in his application said something along the lines of, “I’ve lived in a small, cloistered, blue-collar community all my life. I’m looking forward to moving into a culture where the majority of people don’t all think the same about politics, world affairs, and life in general …” In his article, Michael states that by attending a prestigious school, “You’ll be forced to examine issues differently, question your values, and defend your beliefs; these things will make you a better thinker, and ultimately, a better person.” As I look at our son’s life now, post-Princeton, I can see that what Michael says is correct.

2. Stronger Job Recruiting

Simply stated: you’ll have an easier time finding job opportunities coming out of a well-known school. Tufts receives an array of employers every year specifically seeking to hire its graduates. The existence of this program allowed me to secure a job well before graduation–with a BA in English, no less …

I couldn’t agree more. When our son was a senior at Princeton, he was having a very difficult time making a decision among all the job offers that had landed in his mailbox and email inbox. Full disclosure: Of course, this was in 1999, at the peak of the dot-com bubble and he was graduating with his degree in electrical engineering. Obviously, times have changed, but the principle of lucrative job opportunities gravitating to top schools still applies today, even in these difficult economic times. As Michael says about himself, he was able “to secure a job well before graduation–with a BA in English, no less.”

3. Powerful Alumni Networks

How do those companies decide which career fairs to attend? A school’s prestige definitely factors in, but so do the opinions of the people who already work at said company. Where’s the most logical place for those employees to suggest? The place they went to school, of course. 

Research estimates that 60-80% of all jobs are obtained through a personal connection of some kind …

Another truism, as an excerpt from Michael’s link reveals:

“Research tells us that between 60-80% of jobs are found through personal relationships,” says John Bennett, director of the Master of Science and executive coaching and assistant professor of behavioral science at the McColl School of Business at Queens University of Charlotte. ‘Learning to work in networks and in relationships in a way that is meaningful, that has impact and that conserves both our interest and the interest of the people we’re connected to, certainly is only going to add value to us as employees.'”


So, if you are facing a “big dilemma” this year when it comes to your decision about college choice and enrollment, pause and consider the advantages of a so-called prestigious school. There can be practical benefits.

Of course, personal and family economics will likely play a crucial role in your decision, but prestige and its attending advantages could possibly be a better value in the long run. Best wishes for making the right choice.


Be sure to check out all my other articles at College Confidential.