Should You Invest In An Ivy League College Education?

by Silicon Valley Blogger on 2010-08-1814

We’ve pondered the questions here before — is a liberal arts education worth it? What about a college education of any sort? We even showcased people who quit school and became quite successful despite having no college degree.

Today, the wondering continues. With tuition costs going gangbusters without any signs of abating, we’re all asking the question: is paying for an Ivy League college education worth the expense? These days, many proactive parents are socking away thousands into their 529 savings plan with the hopes of sending their young ones to a prestigious university some day (count me in among the hopefuls).

Some say that education is education no matter where it comes from while others believe that having a prestigious educational background is as important as breathing when it comes to landing a good job. Some may argue that the Ivy League degree can ensure your success and a much better shot at a higher net worth. Let’s take a quick look at this debate, shall we?

An Ivy League College Education vs Community College Education

Here’s why many people think that attending an Ivy League school is overkill:

1. Community college is relatively more affordable. Community colleges and local universities offer a great way for graduating seniors to earn their college degree without breaking the bank. In state tuition is about ¼ to ½ of out of state tuition and, not only is this tuition less expensive, but many students are opting to remain at home during these years, keeping their living expenses to a minimum. Here’s a little chart to compare tuition costs between private and public educational institutions:

college tuition costs


Attending a cheaper college is a great strategy for those attempting to gain the skills and knowledge needed to land a good job without going into debt.

2. It’s easier to get into a local school. Another benefit to these schools is the less restrictive enrollment requirements. In most cases, local public colleges either don’t have a minimum GPA score or have one that is much lower than that of a more prestigious private institution. The same holds true for entrance examinations such as the ACT or SAT.

3. You may be able to transition to an Ivy League school later. There is something to be said about working hard and earning the necessary grades and test scores that will get you into a more exclusive post secondary institution. What’s more is that students who demonstrate the willingness to work hard and earn the grades necessary to get into such a school most often can offset the increase in tuition with scholarship awards and grants from a number of benefactors willing to give bright students the opportunity to earn their degrees from an Ivy League college.

4. Do you really get the same education anywhere? This is a point of debate, but many will say that a college degree is a college degree, no matter where it comes from. An accountant from Harvard has the same skills and knowledge as an accountant from the University of Tennessee. Why? Because federal guidelines require that all colleges conform and offer a curriculum that meets certain acceptable standards. So, at the end of the day, the college graduate that chose to stay home and earn his degree has the same skills and knowledge as the one that went on to Vanderbilt or Yale. When placed side by side, both graduates are equally as prepared to take on the challenges that come with whatever discipline he or she chooses.

What Does An Ivy League Education Buy You?

On the other hand, why does attending an Ivy League university cost an arm and a leg? Here’s an article that gives us some cost comparisons:

You could spend a lot more for an Ivy League college, of course. Harvard University and Yale University charge $33,696 and $36,500 respectively for tuition alone for the 2009-2010 year. Add in room and board, as well as other expenses, and you’ve cracked $50,000 a year.

Compare that with a national state-university tuition average of $6,762 and you know how much of a deal Wyoming is at $3,621. At the high end are New Jersey, $10,874; New Hampshire, $10,522; Vermont, $10,500; and Illinois, $10,353.

If you can afford this or somehow find a way to get into these schools, here’s what you’re getting:

1. There’s the salary potential. Check out what PayScale.com has unearthed:

Best Ivy League Schools By Salary Potential

ivy league schools

ivy league schools
Methodology
Annual pay for Bachelors graduates without higher degrees. Typical starting graduates have 2 years of experience; mid-career have 15 years. See full methodology for more.

2. You’re buying prestige and opportunity. The money you pay goes to buy the prestige of an education at a top school, and in many cases, buys you a spot at the head of the line for a job post. It may open a few more doors for you, especially at companies that are particular about hiring people with certain credentials. There are perks for being “part of an exclusive club”. Whether they like to admit it or not, employers will give more weight to an application with an Ivy League pedigree over one with a public college degree, especially if the hiring manager is an alumnus. Not all employers are this way, but certainly, quite a few are. So is this opportunity worth the extra debt for so many students? Is it worth the investments from stock brokerage accounts that were nurtured throughout the years by caring parents? Good questions.

3. You can get access to exotic courses. Also, private colleges can and often do offer disciplines that may not be available in many public institutions simply because of funding.

4. You’re buying contacts. But, education isn’t everything. The Ivy League graduate is not only armed with a great education, but has also managed to land something even more valuable: contacts. Students who manage to get into a private college and graduate have been given the opportunity to rub elbows with the very people they may end up becoming business partners with in the future, or whom they may work with and invest with down the road.

Getting a college degree is important to your future in terms of opening the doors for you in the work world. But as far as where you should send your children? It’s a big decision that you’ll have to weigh against your other circumstances. Falling into serious debt won’t be worth it, but there may be other ways to get in: some people I know got their kids into top universities — their parents became professors at an Ivy League school. This way, the kids got their education at half price.

Copyright © 2010 The Digerati Life. All Rights Reserved.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Pop August 18, 2010 at 8:12 pm

Great post, though it seems like we (and all the education writers out there) need to stop looking at sticker price and start focusing on what parents are actually paying to send kids to these schools. At Princeton, Harvard, and Yale, if the parents make less than $100k, the tuition is all but eliminated, right? I can’t remember the exact programs they enacted, but I know that few actually pay $45k a year anymore.

Steve August 18, 2010 at 9:13 pm

Points #4 – both of them – are key. I had Ivy League professors at my state school. Maybe they weren’t the best of the best, but I certainly had excellent professors who taught me quite well in my major (math) and minor (Russian). Your second point #4 is also key. If you want to be a “mover and shaker” you’re going to be infinitely better off going to an Ivy than to a local school. But you have to ask what kind of mover and shaker you want to be. If you want to be a big shot in Nebraska, go to Lincoln. Don’t go to Brown… but if you want to be the next Secretary of State, head to Yale.

It’s really all about your expectations. I’d argue that for 99% of us, going to a solid state school and doing well will satisfy our education requirements and give us the connections to succeed in life – at a far, far lower cost. If you want to be the next Clinton/Bush/Obama, by all means, head to Harvard/Yale/etc. – and get ready to deal with hundreds of similarly overachieving classmates…

The Biz of Life August 19, 2010 at 5:42 am

The best deals are at the top public universities like UVA and UNC. You can make plenty of connections at either of those schools with the nations elite if that is what you seek.

Gal @ Equally Happy August 19, 2010 at 9:18 am

I just completed my masters degree at an ivy league school (Columbia) and I can tell you that it wasn’t worth it. Especially for undergrad, you’re better off going to a good community college for two years and then transferring to a decent state school or a UC. You’ll get a great education at a fraction of the cost.

I would also recommend focusing on actual skills as opposed to just a college education. That degree in philosophy or French will get you absolutely nowhere where as a degree in engineering will open a lot of doors.

mike August 19, 2010 at 4:43 pm

I am a product of an Ivy League education. Was it worth it? That’s hard to quantify since the egg is already broken, so to speak. However, when I look at my career path I think that I would have done just as well going to State U.

There’s a few things to consider that are different from when I went. First, these elite schools have immense endowments and most of them have pledged to use them to help students eliminate loans. There really is a have and have not stratification among these schools plus a few others (say Stanford, MIT, etc) and everyone else. Those schools that are merely very selective cost just as much as the Ivy’s but they don’t have the brand name.

If I were to recommend anything to the students today, I suggest go for broke on an Ivy or near Ivy (say Stanford, MIT, etc.) or just go to State school. Don’t go to those schools that are merely very selective.

As an added note, these schools don’t like kids going to cheap 2year schools then transferring. They are onto this. They sometimes put up barriers to students when they transfer credits.

Silicon Valley Blogger August 19, 2010 at 7:14 pm

The thing is, everyone and their brother hope to have their kids make it to the elite schools. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of those who want to get in, will. I think the decision to go Ivy League is actually pretty simple. Can’t it be distilled to this: did your kid get into the school? Great. Do you have the budget or the means to get in? Great. If it turns out that your kid (or you) has to go into deep debt to attend such a school, then pare your expectations and find another way to get a college education.

I quite like Gal’s suggestion — yes, 2 years in community college then if you can hack it, transfer your credits elsewhere.

@Steve, over here in Silicon Valley, the Ivy League degree can go pretty far in putting you ahead of the line for a technical job. I remember my first job at Oracle as an entry level engineer and practically every new hire then was from a well known university or college. But just because you didn’t attend such a school doesn’t mean you’re at a terrible disadvantage. You’ll get a technical job alright, but it may depend where you’re looking or who’s hiring.

Then again, with tuition costs continuing their march upwards, it may be harder to justify the Ivy League education today vs how it was many years ago.

Allied Wallet August 21, 2010 at 4:34 pm

I really do think its worth it. Perhaps the education is not worth the price, but the networking, connections and real time industry experience they will receive at those schools all but make up for it.

danielle August 25, 2010 at 11:54 am

When it comes to ivy league schools in particular, i think the most valuable factor that other schools can’t offer are the networking contacts. not only will professors and staff open doors for you, but your buddy who you took econ with, or your fraternity sister, may end up the CEO of some Fortune 500 company. you’re right on the money — you never know what can happen if you rub elbows with the right people.

Kyle September 2, 2010 at 9:36 am

I know Ivy league schools have been placed on a pedestal ever since their origin, however if you look at the top minds in the world, an Ivy league education is not what you need. Personally I feel that if an individual has the knowledge base to do something great, it doesn’t matter what school the Diploma has on it. Save money and go to a community college, then after you graduate do what you need to do to succeed and show all those Ivy league idiots that your piece of paper coupled with your personality gives you the same opportunities.

StraighterLine.com is a company that has come out over the last couple years and really shown what it means to think dynamically to the economy and provide much lower online tuition costs and allows students to graduate and succeed without overbearing burden of debt. That is just one example of your opportunities other than Ivy league schools. The main difference is YOU.

Hap September 2, 2010 at 5:04 pm

I am an adult student (not fresh out of high school). I have attended a range of schools from community college, to state universities, to Harvard, and even overseas at Oxford.

I have to say that there is a major difference between the quality of education/courses/professors at the Oxford/Harvard level than at the other schools. The difference is so blatant that I must disagree with those who attest that all accredited schools should be considered equal in terms of degree value. They simply are not, and if saying so offends someone, that doesn’t change the fact. I suspect that the education industry tries to dupe the public into accepting that line for profit reasons. However, I encourage students to research the reality of the situation before they invest time and money in a particular school. (I also feel that the level of Oxford far exceeds that at Harvard, by the way. This is a good example of a case where the “standard line” says that Oxford and Harvard are basically equal, where in reality they are not.)

You don’t want to find yourself misled in such an important decision by assumptions or advice from people who will speak based upon what they did. Obviously someone who obtained a degree via community college isn’t going to advise you that it was a bad choice and thus that their own degree is thereby not so hot.

A good way to find the ideal school is to try taking just one (transferable) course at a school that interests you. Many schools offer online courses, so you aren’t stuck trying out only those schools which are close to home. You’ll quickly be able to discern whether a school is a good fit for your goals. (Note that if you take U.K. courses, the credit system differs from that used in the U.S.)

Notwithstanding the above, I’ve had some wonderful professors at community colleges. I believe that the problem isn’t with the quality of the instructors so much as the nature of the student body. There is a big plus offered by a community college environment, in that the wide range of different people thrown together can in some ways enhance the student interaction in a course. On the other hand, you are also going to have to face the reality that the educational/intellectual level in a community college class is probably going to be on the low side compared to the Ivy League type schools. (Obviously this can vary; I’ve been lucky to be in community college classes with some brilliant fellow students.) Generally however, the classes end up being “dumbed down” in relation to the level of the students therein, sometimes to such a degree that I’ve felt it was pointless to bother continuing and dropped the class. For example, in one community college class I took (the typical English 1/A/Composition), the illiteracy level of the other students was utterly shocking. I am not exaggerating to say that out of the entire class, three students (including myself) met the stated prerequisite level to be there, and the rest either were truly illiterate, or ranging up to about 3rd-5th grade grammar school level. We spent all of our time having to catch up those people, clearly a severe hinderance to the qualified students. In my opinion, the other students should have been summarily dropped by the instructor when it became evident that they were unable to participate appropriately. That is when I learned that community colleges are not focused on education so much as on the financial/business benefits of keeping warm bodies moving through the system. Obviously, I dropped the class, which meant that my educational planning got thrown out of kilter. I shouldn’t have had to suffer disruption of my educational path because the bulk of the other students didn’t meet the prerequisite. If you attend a higher level school, these kinds of problems disappear. You also benefit from being in class with geniuses who greatly increase your knowledge gained from taking the course, which offers you a higher value return on money you invest in taking the class.

So – I would say that, being truthful, we have to admit that there ARE different educational/intellectual levels of people in this world. That doesn’t by any means suggest that one level has more social/cultural value than another. I’m no rocket scientist, and therefore I wouldn’t expect a rocket-science degree program to dumb itself down to my level; that is a disservice to the real rocket scientists, and to society generally. It is worth one’s honest evaluation of where one falls in such a society, and where one can best apply himself or herself. By doing so, you’ll be with other students at your level, which expedites your education in a balanced way (not too difficult or too easy). You’ll still walk away with a marketable degree no matter what accredited school you select.

Also keep in mind that some types of careers favor certain schools (for instance, Syracruse U. for sports journalism majors). If you are strongly committed to a specific career path, it’s a great idea to find out if there are any such correlated university programs tied into ideal internships/job placement programs to help get you going.

Dolla Thug September 6, 2010 at 4:33 pm

I graduated with an Ivy League education and I know that it would have been very difficult to work at the company I currently work for without going to the school I went to – when I was in college my company only did active undergraduate campus recruiting at 3 schools: NYU, U. of Michigan, and my school – UPenn. Personally, I think I got a good deal on the price I paid for my Ivy education – at the time I attended, it would have cost approx $160,000 in total for my 4-year degree (ridiculous, I know) but after grants and other financial aid I ended up graduating with $30,000 in student loans – that’s 80% off! So although my current student loan debt annoys the hell out of me and makes me wonder from time to time if it was all worth it to get that Penn degree, at the end of the day I made out pretty good and I plan to make it well worth the investment!

John Pierce October 14, 2010 at 1:25 am

Choosing which schools would give you the most benefit is a not-so-difficult task as when you ask yourself if you can support being in that school or not. More often than not, the best schools also give you the highest fees.

RJH September 7, 2011 at 11:38 am

Currently, I’m being subjected to various styles of learning from course to course, and it is frustrating to adapt the various styles incorporated by the facilitator’s. As an undergraduate student — of an accredited college program — in finance I believe the curriculum should teach the student and not be based on the facilitator’s opinion. I would like to know if the “Ivy Leagues’” curriculum carries from course to course?

Silicon Valley Blogger September 7, 2011 at 11:48 am

@RJH,
Not sure what you mean by “Ivy Leagues” curriculum carrying from course to course? Could you elaborate? Different professors have different styles and they vary across the board. In fact, you can’t really complain about the type of professor you have — you get whoever you choose. Your only recourse if you don’t like the professor is to drop out of their class, AFAIK. Lots of these people are on tenure too — and they can be terrible (with tenure), if you can believe it.

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