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Should You Go To The Best College Regardless of Cost?

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go to the best college

I’ve been interviewing some of the best personal finance bloggers out there to find out some of the worst money advice they’ve ever received. Today, we’re talking about college costs. Bloomberg recently reported that college costs are rising faster than inflation again. Is the name of a prestigious school worth it when comes to cost?

The couple who writes the popular blog Frugalwoods says absolutely not! Mrs. Frugalwoods said that the worst advice she’s ever received came from her high school guidance counselor. In fact, Mr. Frugalwoods received the exact same advice from his too: “Go to the best college you get into, regardless of cost.”

The Frugalwoods couple thought this was terrible advice. Instead, they decided to attend The University of Kansas, a much less expensive state school that was still well respected. As Mrs. Frugalwoods told me, “We did well in undergrad, studied hard, had our share of fun, met each other and kindled our frugal romance, and then graduated with no debt.” (Editor’s note: Go Cats!) 🙂

This lack of educational debt was a factor in their current goal of retiring at the ripe old age of 33. In sum, their best advice was, “Get a solid, but frugal, education.”

When is the Name Worth It?

 

Interestingly enough for the sake of this discussion, I happened to graduate from one of those really good “best college” type of schools, the College of William and Mary. Last time I checked it was somewhere in the top 30 or so best schools in the country. W&M is actually quite affordable for in state students but being from Louisiana, it was costly.

The question is, was the name recognition and prestige worth the cost for me?

There have been a few moments in my career where I’ve been offered a job or an opportunity because I attended William and Mary. The real benefit though was in the connections I made. Many of my classmates went on to be very successful, and some of them have helped me along the way on various occasions. This could be said of many schools though. Sometimes you never know who your classmates will be or what sort of opportunities will come your way because of them in the future. I’m glad I went to William and Mary, but in retrospect, I think I would have been happy at any other school too.

Consider Specific Careers

 

It’s important to note that if you have your heart set on a specific law firm, a certain company, or a particular graduate program, you might have to attend certain schools to get there. I advise against trying to plan your life out in this way, but if you’ve always wanted to work at a particular investment bank in NYC and they only take Yale graduates, then it’s something to think about. (Just playing devil’s advocate here!)

Go to the Best College, But Not at any cost

 

I agree with the Frugalwoods couple on this topic. In fact, I won’t even mind if my kids (gasp) don’t want to attend a traditional 4 year college at all. The costs are really getting out of hand. I’d be equally as proud if they wanted to work abroad, start an amazing business, or do something else. The “experience” of college isn’t what everyone makes it out to be, and it’s completely ridiculous that college costs are so high. It should be something attainable, not crippling, for everyone.

The advice to go to the best college regardless of cost isn’t practical. I would never say that to my kids. Instead I’ll tell them to take whatever is the least expensive school so long as it provides a decent education. The rest is on them to make their own luck and connections. Times have changed since I went to school and they will continue to change. It’s up to us to decide how to handle it for future generations.

 

Do you think you should go to the best college no matter what it costs? Do you think the name recognition or the connections are worth it? Looking back, if you’re a college graduate, would you go to the same school knowing then what you know now? Do you wish you had gone somewhere else?

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Catherine Alford is a professional public speaker and freelance writer who covers family, finance, and freedom. Check out her blog, BudgetBlonde, and her bio at CatherineAlford.com.

32 Comments

  • I think anytime the maxim “do it at any cost” is promoted, it’s worth a second look. Conventional wisdom has been to value college degrees without preforming a true cost/benefit analysis. You’ve given a great counterpoint to that approach!

    Thank you so much for including us–we really appreciate it 🙂

    • We have friends who HAD to go to particular undergraduate schools when they had full scholarships to state schools. They accrued 6 figures of debt etc. It’s just not worth it when you have a full ride somewhere else!

  • I totally agree with them, that getting a solid, but frugal, education is the most important one. Going to an expensive college school will not give you a hundred percent that you will have a good job.

  • Mrs. 1500 says:

    My parents paid for my college, 100%. This is a gift I did not appreciate when I was 18. I studied Fashion Design, a ridiculous major that appears on most “Degrees that are worth less than the paper upon which they are printed” lists. I have never used it as a paying job.
    I wish my parents would have had strings attached to my education, such as “study something useful.”
    Mr. 1500 went to a 4-year state school, graduated and took a computer course which taught him what he needed to know to get his first computer job. It was one of those certificate courses. He rarely uses his biology degree from the 4-year place, but uses that computer certificate course every single day.
    I don’t think a college degree is as necessary as it used to be. If you are a computer programmer, it is completely unnecessary.

  • Catherine says:

    I have no idea how the post secondary system in the US works (private vs public vs in-state va out of state) but for the most part no, you have to weigh both professional and education opportunity with cost. I attended a well known university in Canada to receive my Dental hygiene degree which without a doubt puts me on the top of a pile comparing to less known schools for a similar job. The school i attended is one of the gold standars for the program but its also in my hometown so was an easy decision. If i lived in another province i don’t know what i would have done…in terms of my undergrad degree at the end of the day i don’t think it made any difference and have some regret about the choice, though an excellent school more expensive. So you need to look at every aspect before deciding i guess.

  • It doesn’t appear that a big name school matters in most cases. Your college degree gets you in the door and your work ethic is what dictates the rest. At least that’s what I’ve seen.

  • I’ve been in a hiring position in my company for over 15 years and not once did we hire one person over another based on who has the better college degree. The fact that candidates each have a college dree is an accomplishment no matter what university it was acquired from. I would not recommended attend the best college at any cost, you need to consider the ROI on the degree.

    • I agree. It really depends on the workplace. Some fancy companies only want to hire people who went to x, y, and z schools but I don’t think I’d want to work at one of those places anyway!

  • Kathy says:

    You make a good point about Yale being unnecessary unless you are going into investment banking etc. My son is an engineer and when he interviewed, no one cared where his degree was from. In fact, he went to our state’s flagship public university and it was ranked in the top 10 of engineering schools. A parent has an absolute responsibility to guide their child in making wise decisions about their major curriculum. In my humble (and often controversial) opinion, it is down right dumb to major in fine arts, music appreciation, gender studies, minority studies etc. if you plan on getting a self-supporting job upon graduation. If you have a serious interest in these subjects, you can use them as your minor but for heaven’s sake choose a major that will get you a job. Most people in college cannot attend for the mere desire to get a classical education any more. Unless you are already wealthy, the name of the game is to get a good education in a field where you are employable, and get it at an affordable school.

    • Your comment will definitely be controversial in this setting, Kathy! Many professional bloggers such as myself got liberal arts and fine arts degrees, and we’re doing just fine. 🙂 In fact, I think many of us would argue that it’s downright “dumb” – the word you use – to pursue a degree for a career you don’t like just to “get a self-supporting job” or please your parents. I am “self-supporting” just fine over here. My liberal arts and fine arts background gave me the creativity and the insight to create the exact job I wanted. How many people can enjoy that privilege?

  • I am not even convinced that college is the be-all, end-all and that everyone should go. In Canada, our system is far different, so generally speaking, a degree is a degree, regardless of what school it comes from, as long as it’s a credible one.

  • I definitely wish I had gone somewhere else. But AI made their for-profit seem so shiny and interesting! Everyone, teachers, counselors, parents and relatives, they were all telling me to follow my dreams, it’ll pay out in the end…biggest mistake of my life. It’ll pay out for someone (Sallie Mae/Navient) but not for me! If I could do it all over again, I’d be cautious about student loans. Community college for whatever credits I could get, and paying as I go for the rest. Different major too.

    • I know right? I will definitely be telling the twinsies to do community college credit. The environment is typically more relaxing and cheaper, even if they can knock out a few credits in the summertime!

  • my brother graduated from Princeton in May and he’s still job hunting… Just saying…:)

  • Kim says:

    Like you said, I think it depends on the job you want, although it’s pretty risky to put all your eggs in the Ivy League basket and assume you’ll get hired where you want to work.

    I know tons of kids from Telluride who went to fancy private schools and now serve coffee. Speaking as a graduate of highly prestigious Western Kentucky University I can say that state school served me very well and I would encourage my daughter in that direction.

  • I’ve always been of the opinion that we should each strive to be the best, and that will prove more important than the school we attended. But recently I had a chat with a nephew in his first semester of a combined JD / MBA program at Stanford. He’s already gotten a cold call from one of the planet’s leading consulting firms with the message that a job with it is basically his to lose. Yeah, Stanford is outrageously expensive, but this sort of traction purely because a guy will be graduating from that prestigious school and program means the investment in tuition may well pay off, many fold.

  • First off – and I think you alluded to this – there is absolutely no way to have an apples-to-apples conversation on this if we aren’t talking about the same career. If my goal is to be a political science professor I simply cannot compare the same schools as someone who wants to work in finance. You just can’t. While I did go to private school, there is only one other school (out of maybe 15 or so in the MPLS-St. Paul metro area) that I would even consider going to – and yes that’s with 20/20 hindsight. The main reason is because it’s much easier to get a job in finance when you go to either the school I went to or the U of M. If I was looking to apply to grad schools across the country I would care even more about name recognition.

  • Nice post Cat! Now that I have kids I struggle thinking about what I will tell them when they get to the age where they start to consider college. On one hand I graduated with over $100k in student loan debt. On the other hand, because of college I have a great job (salary, benefits, livestyle, etc…). What I struggle with, is it really the college that gave me the salary or would I have been able to figure out a way to make this kind of money without going to college. Basically, is it the college, or the person that makes the money? I’m not sure. It’ll be interesting as my boys get older who they turn out to be.

  • Chela says:

    I think for undergraduate work, pretty much any school is okay. I think it’s more worthwhile to spend money, if necessary, on specialized postgraduate degrees. It’s hard to say all schools are the same if you’re studying something very specific.

    Having said that, I would encourage everyone to stay away from online diploma mills like Phoenix. I’ve had a handful of recruiter friends tell me that if they see University of Phoenix or something similar on a resume, they immediately disregard that applicant. Even if those places are cheaper, it’s not worth it to sacrifice potential opportunities in the future.

  • Kirsten says:

    Hubs and I attended a top-dollar private university that is very specific to our field. When we drop the name of the university, folks seem to be at least a bit impressed. However, it’s never been enough to command top salaries and hubby borrowed way too much money for such a poor salary outlook. I have my own student loan debt, yet could have attended a university in my home state for FREE. I kick myself routinely for my idiocy.

  • There is virtually nothing that should be done regardless of the cost. I went to a very cheap school for undergrad followed up later with a fairly expensive MBA. The key is just making sure you honestly assess the return and if it outweighs the cost.

  • No way will my kids go to the best college no matter the cost. They will attend the best college “for them” and a high priority for that will be one that meets the college budget. There are simply too many options now to receive a quality education. Paying outrageous sums to attend an elite school doesn’t seem to be worth it. Future career placement and advancement will more likely come from experience in the industry and who you know.

  • I totally took this advice! I went to NYU because it was a premier school in the arts. It did open some doors and led to some interviews/connections in NYC, but nothing solid came from it. Once I moved away from NYC, it was even less valuable. Now, I’m paying the high price!

  • Mrs. Maroon says:

    I am proud to say that I went to a public school for college. Mr. Maroon and I take such pride that we both wear a chunk of gold on our right hands every day to show the world where we went to school. We even used it as inspiration for our blog name! I had a friend in high school who looked down on my ‘mediocre’ in state choice compared to her ‘prestigious’ choice half way across the country. I know that ‘mediocre’ education has opened doors and conversations for me. I would never change a thing – even knowing my parents would have paid for me to go just about anywhere. You can bet we will be encouraging the Minis to go there too – but that’s many years down the road.

  • For me, it really depends on the situation of the family. But, there are many public schools that are equally good as those private. Grades for me are more important that can help much our children get their dream jobs. Based on experience, the name of school just help us get in the initial employment. Experience matters.

  • I definitely don’t think that a name brand college is worth it no matter the cost. While the prestige of an Ivy league name may make a difference in your career…many name-brand colleges really won’t do much but put you in a lot of debt. It really also depends on your major. I know someone who went to an expensive name brand school for Social Work…that is a noble calling but it won’t pay much.

  • I went to Wake Forest and thankfully my father covered the cost for me, but at $50,000 a year, there is NO WAY that I would advise my son to apply there. From what I see, a school is not everything and I frequently argue the value of state schools not just for financial costs, but also for number of alums. Most jobs are all about networking and there are more state school alums running around than private school alums which mean more networking opportunities once you graduate.

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