Senior Susie McClannahan didn’t think it was worth it.
She stood with her mother on the green campus of the University of California, Irvine, for a college visit. Price tag: $50,000 a year.
Already, she was being told that the 30 college credits she had earned while in high school may not be transferable. The description of the honors program was vague, at best.
McClannahan, a National Merit Finalist and co-president of the Spanish National Honor Society, decided to cut UC-Irvine from her list. This fall, she will head to the University of Kansas to study Korean.
“If I had to finance $200,000 [over four years] and then get more degrees,” McClannahan said, “I wouldn’t be making that kind of money per year [after college], so I would just be going rapidly downhill in debt.”
McClannahan is one of the many high achieving scholars across the nation that are being forced to determine the value of an “elite” education. This determination was the focus of a recent article in the New York Times entitled “Is Going to an Elite College Worth the Cost?” The story cited multiple studies that called into question whether private universities are worth their higher costs of tuition.
Experts question whether or not the increase in prestige can lead to more successful future jobs. They worry that it might not be wise to pursue lower-paying careers at more expensive universities. Finally, they are wary of the detriments of long-term commitments to pay off loans.
Lee Furbeck, a senior associate director in the KU office of admissions, pointed out the fact that students like McClannahan that hope to attend graduate school at a more expensive institution can often help themselves out by choosing a public or in-state school for undergraduate studies.
“I often talk with students planning to continue their education after earning a bachelor’s degree about the economical advantage of attending a top public institution like KU as an undergraduate,” Furbeck said. “This makes attending a $50,000-$60,000/year graduate school more feasible.”
For the students that take the opposite approach and choose a more elite school right out of high school, the financial consequences down the road can have a long-lasting effect on the student, according to Mark Kantrowitz, publisher of FastWeb, a scholarship matching service, and FinAid.org, a student guide to financial aid
Kantrowitz has seen students that take out loans to pay for college and end up with six figures of debt after four years. Oftentimes, the student’s salary out of college is insufficient to repay the student loan debts.
“If you’re going to end up borrowing too much money for your education, it’s really not worth the sacrifice,” Kantrowitz said. “You’re better off at a less expensive school than spending like there’s no tomorrow and regretting it later.”
According to Kantrowitz, a heavy factor in college decisions should be the future career and salary of the student. While majors in nursing and computer science have the potential to pay back some of the loans, Kantrowitz said that students studying subjects like art or religious studies might not be able to lead to a high enough salary to pay off the college debts from attending an elite institution. In situations like these, Kantrowitz recommends to attend a more affordable school.
“One measure of a quality education is the amount of graduates employed in jobs that they enjoy,” Kantrowitz said. “Unfortunately, the students who borrow excessively may have to choose a job that is not ideal for them but pays them more in order to repay their debt.”
Everyday, Gary Carpenter, executive director of the National College Advocacy Group, hears from college graduates struggling to pay back the massive debts they accumulated from attending private institutions.
“It can be a very sobering situation when all of a sudden you realize, ‘I have $100,000 in debt and I have a job that just can’t support that kind of debt,” Carpenter said. “[The students wonder,] ‘How am I gonna get through this?’ They may end up going back and living with their parents.”
However, not all students that attend private universities accumulate massive debts. Cristin Weekley, East class of 2005, graduated from Stanford University in 2009. Cristin said she feels fortunate to have parents that were able to financially support her college decision.
Last February, Cristin used the connections she had made at Stanford to help get a job at the University of California, San Francisco as a research assistant. She attributes the high volume of Stanford graduates in the Bay Area as on of the reasons it has paid off to attend the school. Cristin’s father, Ky Weekley, agrees that the higher cost of tuition has paid off.
“We would have been happier with less expenses,” Ky said. “But I don’t feel like that was a bad investment.”
Carpenter concedes the investment in an elite, private university can help a job applicant stand out.
“It’s definitely going to get you in the door for the interview,” Carpenter said. “There’s no two ways about that. That’s all it’s going to do. Once you get hired, you’ve got to perform. If you don’t perform, it doesn’t matter where you went to school – you’re out.”
Carpenter can think of a situation within his own family when a student from a less expensive, state university was able to match up with the elite college graduates. His younger brother went to the State University of New York at Buffalo and received his space engineering degree. Now, he’s a space engineer at Boeing, working alongside graduates of
Stanford and M.I.T.
“The student is going to get out of their education what they put into it,” Carpenter said. “If they’re really excited about the school they’re going to and they’re excited about the major they’re in, they’re gonna dedicate themselves and they’re going to get an excellent education. The student makes the school – the school doesn’t make the student.”
McClannahan plans on making the most of her education at KU. She has researched several clubs and activities at the university, including one that pairs international students with American-born students to help the former adapt to American culture. McClannahan also plans on studying abroad, and she has been accepted to the school’s Honors Program, an opportunity that Furbeck believes can help lure students from elite universities.
“Students who are trying to decide between KU and [more expensive, private universities] are often interested in the University Honors Program, which actually can be more difficult to gain admission to than some highly selective institutions,” Furbeck said.
The KU Honors Program is one of the main reasons McClannahan’s mother does not see paying for a private, out-of-state school as a wise investment. When McClannahan’s parents attended a meeting for potential members of the program and their families, they were told that the KU Honors Program was ranked fifth among honors programs in the nation, tied with Harvard. And as she considers her daughter’s future, she has settled upon an analogy that works for her.
“I’ve always believed it’s just like shopping,” Cindy said. “If you can get two things of equal value, and one store offers it at half the price, then you should go there. If you’re going to be in the honors department that’s ranked fifth in the nation and you’re paying half the cost of a private university, then that’s worth it.”