ic S/general/checkmark circled Thanks for subscribing! Be on the lookout for our next newsletter.
ic S/general/checkmark circled Saved to Favorites.
Articles / Applying to College / College Prestige: Cost vs. Value

Dec. 23, 2013

College Prestige: Cost vs. Value

The time of year for college decisions falls in two general seasons. First is that of the December Early Action (EA) outcomes. Applicants who have applied EA can choose to delay their enrollment decision until May 1, the traditional enrollment deadline. However, they can also choose to enroll immediately, in December, if the early good news matches their first-choice college preference. Being admitted to an EA school in December is a distinct advantage because it tends to remove a lot of pressure and stress from applicants because they now have at least one school “in the bag" and can, if they choose, go on to explore options at other schools, particularly so-called “reach" schools that may lie at or just beyond the applicants' abilities to be accepted.

Reach schools are many times also referred to as “prestigious." I've often had a problem with that term and frequently qualify my use of it by adding a parenthetical comment, as in “Reach schools are many times also referred to as 'prestigious' (whatever that means)." Is there any truth to the “power" of prestige, 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" (whatever that means) 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'sa prestigious (whatever that means) answer!

I'm always curious about what others are thinking and saying about the element of prestige (you know what goes here) in college search and selection. That's why I was intrigued by an article in the Huffington Postwritten by Michael Restiano, a senior at Tufts University. Tufts is also considered by many to be a prestigious (oh, never mind) school. Michael poses 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 rationales.

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


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

More on Applying to College

Can I Reapply After Early Decision or Early Action Rejection?

Can I Reapply After Early Decision or Early Action Rejection?

Question: If I apply to a college through Early Decision or Early Action, but I am not accepted, can I apply again through Regula…


How To Get Into Penn in 2022

There's no doubt that the University of Pennsylvania is extremely difficult to get into. In 2021, the ivy league school in P…

Early Decision or Early Action?

Early Decision or Early Action?

Question: Why should I consider an Early Decision or Early Action college application? What's the difference?

Your level of d…

Can I Apply Early Twice?

Can I Apply Early Twice?

Question: I am planning on applying early decision to my first-choice college. I will be notified of my status by December 31st. …

Advantages of EARLY Early-Decision Application?

Advantages of EARLY Early-Decision Application?

Question: I'm applying Early Decision to an Ivy League school. Is there any advantage for me to send in the application mate…

A-Z College Forums

Browse the College Forums

Find Your Best Fit

Find your best fit college and track your favorite colleges.