I actually disagree about part of what you said, BUBailey. I think some people make bad financial decisions. You are making a sensible one.
I've wrestled with the "worth it" question a lot and my answer is that people were affected by the bubble climate and began to believe the future would always improve and they'd always be making more money. With that came this weird fascination with prestige - which mirrored the way luxury brands became more, not less coveted. The idea became that prestige generated a better life, meaning they attributed a value to prestige separate and apart from the education and apart from their own efforts in life. I've heard more than one person use the phrase "golden ticket" without, it seems, recognizing the line comes from Charlie & The Chocolate Factory, which is a fable.
In other words, we had two issues. One was this belief, parroted by many economists btw, that the business cycle was, well, less cyclical and that we were ramping ever on and upwards. The other was this belief that schools could be ranked like your clothes, as in a Chanel bag is more exclusive than Louis Vitton and that says you're better. Maybe that's an inevitable consequence of the price of school, that it be viewed and rated through the lens of luxury goods, as in my Viking stove is "better" than your GE.
So the answer is you have to think about a few important points, keeping in mind that life is not neat and tidy:
1. How much debt means how much debt service? I'm no longer stunned to hear that kids & families took on $100k in debt without thinking about how much that costs each month & annually to pay back. If you're directly comparing schools and one is $100k in debt cheaper, then you should believe the degree will earn you that much more money a month. (And you need to realize this needs to be true fairly quickly because you start to pay back loans right away.) A community college is not a university but is one school really worth that much more? Put a number on it and think about that. Remember that if you must pay out $x on your loans each month, that's money you don't have to save or spend. You may not be able to afford a nicer place to live, a better car, going out as often, etc.
2. Your program. If you want to be a naval architect, you have a limited number of choices - and one is Michigan, which costs as much as BU for out-of-state. If that's your desire, that's the cost. Same for many programs. Want to do biomedical engineering? BU's program is, I hear, very good and there aren't that many out there.
3. Love. You can't place a real value on love. What if you love Bowdoin and simply must go there? What if you grew up rooting for Duke?