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Articles / Applying to College / Elite Colleges = Elite Bang for Your Bucks?

Elite Colleges = Elite Bang for Your Bucks?

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Aug. 7, 2014

This is a popular argument topic with which I have some personal experience. I probably don't have to tell you about the cost of college these days. It's stunning. Over the past decade, many families have begun to question their ROI (return on investment) from so-called “elite" colleges. Those would be the Ivy League institutions and perhaps those stretching across the Top 25 or even Top 50 schools, as ranked by such “authorities" as U.S. News.

Anyway, I mentioned that I have some personal experience, as a parent, with the “value" of elite colleges. In my particular case, that experience comes from our son being admitted to and graduating from Princeton University. My being an independent college admissions counselor certainly didn't hurt our son's admissions process. I was able to articulate and coach the various components of the considerable task that faced him.

He applied to and was accepted at four schools, quite a few less than the trend these days, where high-performing high school seniors are applying to 10, 15, even 20 (!) colleges. Our son's four were Princeton (Early Action), Cornell University, Haverford College, and Swarthmore College. Of course, getting the late Dean Hargadon's famous “Yes!" letter in mid-December of his senior year made his remaining three Regular Decision applications eventual moot points. They were helpful, though, from an informational standpoint in the area of financial aid. I learned a lot about the relationships among school size, endowments, investment-per-student, and need-based aid.

One of my regularly touted maxims over the years for high school students has been, “Get into the best and most expensive college that you can." My rationale for this is essentially “Follow the money." Once again, my personal parental experience comes into play regarding our son's college process. He was accepted not only at Princeton (EA), but also at Cornell, Haverford, and Swarthmore. He waited to enroll at Princeton until after the remaining three schools had played their hands in financial aid. This is where I learned a lot about the power of huge endowments.

At the time we filled out the FAFSA, CSS Profile, and Princeton-specific financial aid forms, our family income was quite modest, so we were concerned about being able to pay for our son's college. This is the plight of many families as they wade into the realm of higher education. But, we shouldn't have been as concerned as we were.

This was over a decade-and-a-half ago. These days, our family's financial profile, such as it was back then, would qualify us for a virtual free ride at Princeton. Back then, however, they used the various aid application forms to calculate need, and the awards our son got from Princeton were outstanding, much better than the offers that came from his other three schools. So, he managed to successfully negotiate two crucial hurdles at Princeton. First, he got in. That's probably the BIG hurdle. Second, we were able to afford his education there. That's probably a close second to getting in. My answer to the remaining issue is at the core of what my article here is about: Was his time at Princeton worth what we had to pay for it?

In a word: absolutely. I believe that from an educational standpoint, he could have gotten a similar quality education in his chosen field, electrical engineering, at any number of schools. However — and this is a big however — what awaited him after graduation was where Princeton separated itself from those other schools that offered a similar, technical education … its alumni network. Obviously, a Princeton engineering degree has a certain amount of sheen to it, but the people out there in the business world who had already graduated from Princeton place a premium on newly minted Princeton grads.

Accordingly, our son was courted by a number of companies that had a strong Princeton presence in their upper management. The stories he told us of how he was treated during his job interviews was the stuff of Mom and Dad fantasies. First class air travel, limos at the airport, top-flight hotels, restaurants, as well as amazing salary, perk, and signing bonus offers rolled in and were an embarrassment of riches. Looking back today, 15 years after his graduation and after a series of his every-increasingly attractive jobs, I can say without reservation that elite educations can definitely give your son or daughter a terrific–if not the best–bang for your bucks.

Certified Financial Planner Ted Jenkin agrees with me. In an interesting opinion piece, Are The Elite Private Colleges Worth The Price Of Admission?, he proffers some words worth considering:

It is apparent that college education costs and health insurance are the two arenas that have defied gravity when it comes to cost over the past six years through this economic recovery. With college tuition escalating at a much faster rate than normal inflation and continued pressure coming on family savings, the average household today may wonder if getting a diploma from an expensive prestigious private college is worth the ticket of admission.

If your son or daughter is lucky enough to have the qualifications to get into the ultra-elite schools (such as Harvard), then my answer is yes. There is a very short list of impressive schools that have a strong alumni base stretched out across the United States or have the extremely high end internationally recognized credentials necessary to help a student make a major impact with their career in the short term [my emphasis].

Let's head to the Web for a quick hit to see about alumni networks. First here are the top three from a list of The 10 Most Powerful Alumni Networks:

1. University of Pennsylvania: Any university that boasts Donald Trump and Warren Buffett — the latter being the third richest man in the world — has to have a pretty powerful alumni network. Nine current alumni have won Nobel Prizes, and other influential alumni still living include powerful lawyer Marty Lipton …

2. Harvard: Known as one of the most distinguished universities in the world, Harvard has educated five U.S. presidents, including the last two — George W. Bush and Barack Obama, as well as John F. Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt and Theodore Roosevelt, and former Vice President Al Gore. Other politicians include two Canadian Prime Ministers, and the presidents or prime ministers of Israel, Taiwan, Colombia, Chile, Peru, Canada, and Mexico. Beyond politics, Harvard has a root in Hollywood, counting powerful celebrities and entertainers like Matt Damon, Natalie Portman, Tommy Lee Jones, Darren Aronofsky, and many others among its alumni network …

3. Princeton: Another Ivy that's educated three U.S. presidents is Princeton. First Lady Michelle Obama is also a Princeton alum, as are current Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan, and Samuel Alito. The founder of Amazon.com, Jeff Bezos, graduated from Princeton in 1986, and other powerful alumni in business range from the President and CEO of the Quaker Oats Company, to the founder of The Princeton Review to the CEO of Avon to former executives at Goldman Sachs. Meg Whitman, Ben Bernanke, Paul Krugman, Nobel laureate John Forbes Nash, Fast Food Nation creator Eric Schlosser, New Yorker editor and Pulitzer Prize winner David Remnick, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Jodi Picoult, Brooke Shields, Boston Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino, Dallas Mavericks CEO Terdema Ussery, and other alumni prove that Princeton's network permeates and directs all industries.

Check the article's title link to discover the remaining seven.

How about Top Colleges For Getting Rich? Here's the lede:

Big Green grads are in the money. So says a recent study compiled by PayScale.com that looks at earnings of alumni at colleges around the country. Graduates of Dartmouth College finished on top of the list with a median compensation of $134,000, edging out alumni of Princeton University who finished second with a median comp of $131,000.

Of course, my Princeton bias is easy to see, but it's also easy to see the power of the top universities in America. So, if you have been wondering if the freight (and great need-based aid, if you qualify for it) is worth it at these elite schools, I hope the above might help you decide an answer for yourself. Go Tigers!


Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles on 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.

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