Pick a school only on prestige and job placement, unless it's very inexpensive

I am tired of hearing people say, “don’t pick a school based on prestige, selectivity, etc.; pick a place where you feel good/the weather is good/your heart connects”, etc.

You will be paying up to around $250,000 for a college education.

Nobody with half a brain would spend $250,000 for anything other than a college education without considering the return on the investment. Who buys a house in a known declining neighborhood, knowing that the value of the property will decline?

Job placement (salaries, employment rates, etc.) are the most direct way to measure the return on the investment of a college education. Placement often correlates at least somewhat with prestige.

So: if you’re telling someone not to pick a school based on selectivity, placement, etc., you’re basically telling a person to spend $250,000 without considering the payoff. That’s terrible advice.

Only if the expense is low enough to justify the rate of return (i.e., poor placement, earnings, etc.) from a low-prestige school should a low-prestige school be considered.

End of rant.

“You will be paying up to around $250,000 for a college education.”

Paying this much is crazy, unless you are very wealthy or are walking away with an MD degree. For most students this should not be necessary.

Prestige plus $3.99 will buy you a big mac. It might or might not also get you a job interview but it won’t get you the job.

“Placement often correlates at least somewhat with prestige.”

High school success correlates with both university success and getting a good job. That doesn’t mean that prestige is what got a person the job. In my experience over 40+ years in the workforce, employees from prestigious universities are sometimes good and sometimes lousy, just like employees from state universities.

Of course this is nonsense; the MANY fine schools with higher acceptance rates who send their grads off to excellent graduate & professional programs and rewarding careers. Here are the acceptance rates of a few:
Kalamazoo 70%
Hope 72%
Reed 31%
Earlham 64%
Denison 38%
Ursinus 83%

Underperforming at a prestigious school because you’re miserable won’t land you a job

College prestige and return on investment don’t have as much correlation as you think. Connections, work experience/internships, and choice of major matter a lot more.

Correction: Job placement-type measures are one direct way to measure the return on investment of a college education.

The first big issue I have with your overall thesis: You seem to be assuming the return on investment of a monetary investment can only occur in monetary terms. As economists have known for a long, long time (I mean, even Adam Smith pointed this out!), non-monetary returns can be the most important to come from a monetary investment.

But even if you’re insistent on focusing only on financial returns, I’d argue that you’re being shortsighted by assuming both (a) job placement and salaries are the best way to measure that and, arguably more problematically, (b) all college educations cost the same amount.

Are you the Harvard alumnus who in your posts feels that several Harvard schools should be closed because their students are not good enough to deserve a Harvard degree? E.G. School of Education?

Prestige is an illusion created by marketing. The most important things are:

  1. major (that supply and demand thing)
  2. cost (in state public Us are a good bet for low cost if you didn’t get a scholarship)
  3. brick and mortar (not that an online school can’t be good, but there is no minimum standardization of quality in online programs, so you never know what you’re gonna get; at least at brick and mortar the curriculum is based on actual classroom hours)

“Nobody with half a brain would spend $250,000 for anything other than a college education without considering the return on the investment.”

Actually, this part of the original post is true. We do see kids spending a LOT on universities, and it does make a lot of sense to consider the return on investment.

One area where I disagree with OP is on the value of “prestige”. I just don’t see it as all that important. I have seen too many Harvard graduates do sort of okay, while Rutgers and U.Mass graduates in my experience on average are doing as well. Of course I might not be seeing the average Rutgers and U.Mass graduates, but it is also true that most students who got into Harvard are going to do well, even if they go to U.Mass or UNH or Rutgers instead (picking schools for this example that are physically in vaguely the same geographic area as Harvard).

I think that a student and their parents need to look pretty hard at universities, and find one that has an academically strong program in the areas that the student is interested in, and that is in an area where the student wants to live (at least for four years), and that fits the budget. Frequently you can’t find everything that you want and need to compromise. I agree that on the most part the “prestigious” universities have many academically strong programs. However, a very large number of other universities do also.

I’m not surprised OP is getting slammed for this, but he certainly has a good point. You are more likely to make connections with influential people at Harvard than at U Mass. You are more likely to get an interview for a top job, more likely to land that top job, and more likely to be given the benefit of the doubt on your intellectual ability. What you make of those opportunities is up to you. But a more prestigious school will open up more opportunities.

That had to be weighed against other factors though. My oldest would be miserable at an Ivy or equivalent school. He might be smart enough to handle it if he worked hard enough, but he doesn’t want to work that hard. He also had an idea of what he wants to do, and an elite college won’t benefit him. It actually would be a hindrance, because he won’t be able to major in his field of interest. Also, if you are full pay, you have to weigh the cost against the benefits. And for some kids either the structure of the common core at Columbia or the open curriculum at Brown would just be a bad fit, regardless of the prestige.

There are definitely other factors, but prestige can be a very important one.

Counter-rant: how many people here on CC actually pay that much for their kids’ education? Not that many. In fact, I would say the majority of parents on CC are trying to maximize ways to help their kids get merit aid. Clearly, there are plenty of intelligent, successful people who can’t afford 250k for an education. I am not defining success by home value and the size of a portfolio. Plenty of very succesful people just don’t have that kind of money. And this post implies that unless a kid goes to a prestigious university, there will be no return on any investment, which is nonsense.

It also implies that kids that can’t get into prestgious universities are doomed to lead unsuccessful lives. All those poor schmucks who had to attend community college must REALLY be doomed. I’m thinking particularly of losers like Tom Hanks, Amy Tan, Morgan Freeman, George Lucas, Jim Lehrer, Walt Disney, Billy Crystal, Guy Fieiri, Steve Jobs, and quite a few other really unsuccessful people. What a waste that investment was.

I disagree. To my family, the point of college is not to get a job afterwards. The point of college is that it is the only time in your life that you can devote yourself wholly to the life of the mind for four years, exploring ideas with other people who enjoying doing so as much as you do. The second point of college is to dip your toe gradually into independence, making a move toward adulthood in a somewhat sheltered environment before stepping out into the world of rent/bills/shopping/cooking/working.

Yes, you need a college education as a prerequisite for many careers you might pursue afterwards. But even with a career, as long as you won’t starve or be homeless, you should pick the career that you find most fulfilling. I have never once regretted picking public education as my career after Williams instead of one of those popular big-Williams-connection fields of investment banking or consulting. I am doing what I love. Who cares how much money I make doing it? So my colleagues at work went to colleges such as C.W. Post and Molloy and ended up with the same job title and income. Who cares? I went to a top college for the love of learning. Period. And other people, who start at a college with less prestige, may end up at the top of a high paying field, because that is what they love and are driven to do. It would be naive to say there are no connections between where one gets one’s education and one’s job prospects, because there are connections, but mostly we create our own opportunities in the world of work. It is about the individual more than his/her school.

And judging a college by how much its graduates earn would be tragic. Who wants to live in a world without experts on Plato or geometry or art history or Greek mythology? The “best” colleges should prepare graduates not just for high paying fields but for purely academic fields where the only practical value is making the world a more interesting place.

The mind matters. Without thought, life would be meaningless.

It’s the person who becomes “successful” (whatever that means to the individual or to society as a whole), not the diploma. Colleges with a higher percentage of “successful” graduates enroll a higher percentage of students who were likely to succeed no matter where they went to college. The return on investment is not the success, but the education (as @TheGreyKing eloquently pointed out).

^^ @Lindagaf
You’ll be surprised! There’s a ton of us here. Ivy+ schools’ student population are about 60% full pay. Granted, CC’s economic demographic is different, but judging by reading threads, there are a lot of full pay families here.

We’re full pay. A ton of people arent, including kids whose families simply cant afford it. I wouldn’t be surprised.

“You will be paying up to around $250,000 for a college education.”

How do you consider return on investment with wildly different costs, because that’s the reality for many many people, not paying approximately $250k for either a terrible school or a “prestigious” school. Pretty much everyone who could be full pay has a variety of price points to choose from, especially when the student has excellent grades and test scores.

Minimal cost–living at home and attending local state university–$10-20k for all four years, total, with merit scholarships. This was an option for my kids. (Or better yet, a full ride merit scholarship covering room and board at someplace lower ranked. Could have been an option for my kids had they applied to schools with these types of scholarships.)

Cost, with merit aid, at approximately a top 100 university or top 100 LAC, or living on campus at our state U— 80-90k max for all four years. This is where our ROI analysis and consideration of fit landed our kids and about what we are actually paying out of pocket. The kids each had several choices in this category.

Meets need at top 50ish or higher college with an EFC of 40k or so per kid, or with merit aid—around $160-170k for four years, total. Several choices here also for our kids.

Full pay at a full price school—$240-280k (this just isn’t our reality–we aren’t full pay, but we do have a high EFC).

We looked at return on investment, but the cost differences are huge and so far I"m seeing my kids have tons of opportunities at the schools they are at. As well as they’ve done landing internships, I’m not worried they won’t find jobs, and good ones. And yes, as others have said, we do also value other things besides income and prestige. Money doesn’t buy happiness.

Are there really people who are legitimately full pay that are choosing between a tippy top school like Harvard and, say, {insert name of other good college here} and not considering ROI along with fit? How low do you have to go with respect to “prestige” before there are major (not minor) cost differences that come into play and affect ROI? A kid that could get into Harvard would be getting merit at many other schools, making the cost difference easily $80k or more over four years.

And that’s all without even looking at what goes into the ROI measurements that make them less than reliable.

Serious question: So?

I mean, do connections with “influential people” really lead to better job prospects? My own observation is that no, simple networking does, but not particularly networking with “influential people”.

No one’s opinion is likely to change, but here’s my take.

  1. @DadTwoGirls you should take a look at this data https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/college-mobility/. Median income for MIT grads is at least 60% higher than for Rutgers grads. You can argue all day about why this is, but it's just not factually accurate to say grads from both schools do just as well.
  2. [quote] Underperforming at a prestigious school because you're miserable won't land you a job.


    While under-performing at any school won’t land you your dream job, I disagree with the possible implication students can only succeed where they have the best fit. Most kids go to K-12 at whatever public school is available for their neighborhood. Most kids either go to college to wherever is within commuting distance, to the best in-state public they can get admitted to, or wherever offers the lowest cost of attendance. For many people, fit never enters into the equation and they do fine. If someone’s such a special snowflake they can only succeed at their “perfect fit” school, then they have other issues, which may hold them back.

@snarlatron, yes, the colleges you list have the grad schools acceptance rates that you list. But which grad schools do those students go to? The same schools that, say, Princeton’s alumni would go to?

@iwannabe_Brown, I was completely miserable in college, yet I had nearly all As. I was very happy in law school, but got mostly Bs. Happiness at a school doesn’t necessarily lead to better grades…and if you don’t do as well at MIT as you would have at, say, Montana State, you certainly will get a job coming from MIT. So I don’t buy your argument.

OP’s recommendation was unless it’s “inexpensive” always choose the most prestigious. I agree that there are many schools at which a student will be successful. My point was

  1. There’s a difference between “being successful” and “maximizing your potential.”
  2. While there are probably multiple schools where someone could maximize their potential, there are also definitely schools where it’s not just a “not perfect fit” but it’s actually a terrible fit. I’m sure in OP’s mind Columbia is more prestigious than Dartmouth but is it really that hard to imagine a student who would do far better at Dartmouth than Columbia? Sure, they’d also probably even maximize their potential at several other schools, but doesn’t mean Columbia is one of them and in that scenario “sacrificing prestige” would be worth it, no?
  3. Most kids don’t even graduate from college at all let alone go to schools without considering fit - at least according to the NIH in 2012, the most recent data I could quickly find (41% of 18-24 year olds enroll in college, so even less make it through since the graduation rate isn’t 100%). Most kids are by definition average, and certainly “most kids” do not come to CC. I assume that most kids who visit this site, and whom OP had in mind as his audience, are looking to be more than average. Maybe now I’m the one incorrectly injecting my own thoughts into someone else’s words though.