By Ryan Brown
College tuition and debt are rising. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that in the 2013 academic year, the average sticker price for a college education rose to $8,893, a $247 increase from 2012.
Additionally, the Institute for College Access and Success reported that the average college student graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 2012 had a student loan debt over $29,000—65 percent of an average graduate’s starting salary.
With rising debt numbers, a lot of students are wondering if an education at a top-tier university is really worth the extra debt load.
Anthony LeCounte is a 2011 graduate of Yale College who tells a different story about his Ivy League education. LeCounte graduated with hopes of following the path of his father, a career soldier, and landing a job in the defense sector. In a blog for the Huffington Post, LeCounte says it’s hard to find a job due to increasing cuts in defense spending. Instead, he pursued a series of internships and temporary positions. Not only does he not have a full-time job, but because he had to take out loans to pay for his Yale education, LeCounte also has a lot of debt hanging over his head. He deferred payment of those loans due to unemployment. It’s clear from the title of his blog post, “Turns out my Ivy League education is worth squat,” how LeCounte feels about his time in expensive education.
Delece Smith-Barrow, an education reporter for U.S. News and World Report covering graduate schools, says an expensive education may still be a wise choice.
“It’s better if you have an idea of what you want to do—the career you want to go into—to look at that first, and see which school can offer you what you need,” she said.
She says that certain schools have specializations, and believes that should mean more to a prospective student than a specific ranking.
“Every school is different, and typically every school specializes in certain career paths. If you want to go to law school and specialize in health care law, whether it’s an Ivy League institution or a state school, the offerings at the school can really vary,” said Smith-Barrow.
Specializations aside, however, the fact remains that it seems like many who attend a private, expensive university end up being better off.
Kendel Christensen, a 2013 University of Pennsylvania alum, who’s now working for corporate training startup Self Spark, said that in a perfect world this wouldn’t be the case.
“The information you need to be competent is out there. If it’s all about what you can deliver, what your skills are, what knowledge you have—if it were only about that, I would say stay away from the Ivy League. It is hugely, ridiculously, almost embarrassingly over-priced,” he said.
He notes, though, that the opportunities that can come with a well-known university can often be worth it.
“It’s not just about competency. We live in an era of snap-judgments. People take ten seconds to look at your resume. I kid you not when I hand out my resume the first thing they say is ‘Oh, the University of Pennsylvania!’,” said Christensen.
This doesn’t mean that you should drop whatever you’re doing and apply to an Ivy League school, however. Reyna Gobel, author of CliffsNotes: Graduation Debt and a Forbes contributing writer, cautions against going after a degree just because of the institution’s name.
“You shouldn’t get a car that you’re not really going to drive and that isn’t going to get you to work on time. You should get a car that is practical and reliable and is worth what you’re spending,” she said.
Gobel warns that, besides the name, students need to look at their future career goals and match that with what they’re paying for school.
“If the school is 40,000 a year, you better get a pretty nice job when you get out that’s going to allow you to pay for that,” she said.
So how can you determine if the money you’re putting in is really worth it? That’s where something called an ROI, an abbreviation for Return on Investment, can come into play.
Allie Bidwell, another education reporter for U.S. News and World Report, says that looking at the ROI for a school is a vital step in researching a college education.
“Typically return on investment looks at the costs that students are paying for their college education versus how much they’re making in their jobs after they graduate. It focuses on whether they end up making a profit, coming flat, or losing on their investment,” said Bidwell.
So what’s the school out there with the best ROI? If you thought Harvard you’d be wrong. The best return on investment actually comes from Harvey Mudd College, a private science college in Claremont, California. Tuition at Harvey Mudd will run you a four-year cost of $229,500, but the return on that investment is huge. You’ll ultimately make out with $980,900.
And what’s the worst? Valley Forge Christian College. Four years will cost you over $114,000, and the thirty-year ROI is $-178,000.
At the end of the day, however, a degree is really what you make of it and students should not hesitate to ask questions as they decide which school to attend.
“Call up the places you want to work for and ask them, ‘Will this make a difference if I have a degree from X school?’ Schools can tell you whatever they want, they’re still salespeople. But the place where you want to get employed, those are the people that you should care about,” said Gobel.
As more and more families see college expenses continuing to rise, determining whether the cost of higher education is worth it will become even more important.