Why (Not) Spend a Fortune on College


Eldest is becoming a great young musician (he plays low brass). And I get to listen to live classical music in my home all the time!

Last year, he kicked butt and received the highest state honor for his performance of “Introduction and Dance” by Barat. It’s a beautiful melody; do hear it in its entirety below (not a recording of Eldest).  My favorite part starts around 2:15.  And maybe also around 3:13.


This year, I get to  listen to him practice “Bluebells of Scottland” by Prior.



Which brings me to colleges…

Eldest is doing great at school, and has grown into an ambitious and very disciplined young man. He will take the ACT a little early but hasn’t decided on a major (likely biology — gasp!). He is certain about his minor/second major, which is music.

We cannot afford to send him to a school that will cost ~$60k per year with room and board. Please don’t come to tell me that private colleges end up subsidizing so much that it’s virtually free! I have done the calculations and we make too much for significant subsidies, and I am strongly opposed to taking loans if we can help it. YMMV, but I really don’t think that going into debt is prudent when you can go to a state flagship R1 that your parents can actually afford and where you can have any major you can imagine.

I still don’t understand why it is important to go to an expensive private school for undergrad, especially when the kid will likely go to grad school. I have asked many people IRL and no one has given me an answer that makes sense to me (other than that for disadvantaged students going to an Ivy really makes a difference, but this is not relevant to my kid). Many people talk about the nebulous “fit.” What is it that a high-achieving kid, who is quite socially apt and doesn’t require hand-holding to do his work, would get for $60k per year that he would not get at an R1 where he where he pays in-state tuition?

I feel like we are supposed to all be striving to go to pricey private schools, but I can neither understand why nor can I shake it off as irrelevant. My rational brain wants to call bullshit; the school I work at is a great school, a wide variety of majors, and he can graduate without debt. But my irrational brain says that, being an immigrant, I do not understand the importance of private-school education and that my kid is thus destined to be a hick.

What say you, blogosphere?


  1. One thing fancy schools get you is peers who went to your fancy school. If the fancy school is Ivy League (or the equivalent) that means that the people you hung out with in University become well connected lawyers, doctors, business folks, scientists, musicians, etc. For someone not good at networking, it is an instant network that they can tap later in life if needed. That said, for most people, graduating debt free with parents who still have savings is a better use of resources in my opinion.

  2. I had planned on *not* paying for my kids to go to college, reasoning that if they were any good at all, they’d at least get a mostly full-ride scholarship to a state school. (Also, I’m not particularly impressed w/the education at most fancy private undergrad schools.) But a friend of mine who has seen the hiring decisions in many firms says that the HR departments he’s seen typically toss out resumes that don’t include a name-brand school. Essentially, HR staff doesn’t want to ‘risk’ a recruit w/o fancy credentials–if someone came from XXX school but flames out, HR can say, “but he/she came from such a great school, how could we know?”, whereas otherwise it’s considered bad judgement on their part. I’m not wholly convinced, but I am starting to freak out about not having started a college fund for my three year olds.

  3. For the most part, I’m with you on the flagship state school (and, for context, I’m a double-Ivy — B.A. and M.A/Ph.D. — graduate with a father who was the same, and a mother who attended the female equivalent to the M.A. level). I’m also a contingent faculty member, and many of my undergrad and grad classmates are in similar useful but not particularly impressive positions, so I’m skeptical of the whole Ivy-degree-as-road-to-riches/a-“good”-job-however-defined narrative. It may be true under some circumstances, but I’d guess that many people who get connections from their Ivy experiences already had pretty good connections via family (and are also better than I at cultivating them). I had a good experience in undergrad,and a not absolutely terrible one at the grad level, but I’m pretty sure that, within reason, the key is in the student’s ability to make the most of the experience, not the school itself.

    That said, I do think that there’s something to be said for mixing with people from various places and backgrounds, and some flagships provide more of that than others (there’s increasing pressure from taxpayers in many states to serve primarily residents of that state, even though that can be counterproductive). And a few of the most-selective private schools (e.g. the Ivies) really do offer a full ride even to people with pretty substantial family incomes (and there may also be significant differences in things like fees and housing and dining costs; my sense is that state schools are more likely to hide additional costs here and there via things like athletic fees, while at least some private schools are more likely to offer a one-size-fits-all package of tuition/housing/dining/fees if applicable and discount that steeply. That approach also increases the chances that students of varying backgrounds actually will mix, because there’s less opportunity/pressure to save money via alternative living/dining arrangements. One could argue the same for going to a school where less-privileged students are heavily subsidized: they’re more likely to be present and participating in the life of the university than if they’re struggling to pay expenses that look modest to others.).

    I guess one question to consider is whether your son would deal well with the idea of applying to selective private schools with the understanding that you’ll accept offers from them only if they genuinely match the state-school cost. That could be a painful experience or an empowering one depending on the personality of the applicant (and also the attitudes of those surrounding him).

  4. I also think spending 60k/yr on college room and board is silly. But if my kid wanted to do that then I think I would encourage him to go and take on the debt.

    I suspect that the expectation value of an Ivy grads future earnings is way way more than enough to take on the debt. I would bet that even Ivy grads who major in art history have enough earning power after graduation (from pedigree, network, etc) to live comfortably and without substantial debt anxiety if they are motivated to.

    Of course that’s just anecdotal from my friends that went to Ivy league schools (I did not).

  5. I can see the benefits of the network, but at least my personal experience indicates it’s not necessary. I went to one of the in-state R1 midwesr state schools for undergrad. As a graduate student. Many of my fellow students got accepted to some of the top graduate schools. I went to large state school for graduate school, and was hired as an assistant professor in a hard science at my original undergraduate institution.

    It depends on what you’re aiming for. The networking can be useful if you want to get into top law firms, hospitals, or back to being a prof at an ivy league. But there are plenty of great opportunities that still let you do what you want with your life without going into massive debt. Personally I’ve never seen the point in trying to be in the top social echelon.

  6. I think for someone upper middle class the quality of the state flagship matters a lot. My kids will not be going to state schools in the south, period. I want them to learn thinking in college, not rote memorization. Once you’re talking out of state you might as well go private because of the cost. You’re in the Midwest, IIRC, so it is probably fine.

    I definitely benefitted from going to a top brand school, but I was also low income growing up. DH and I both went to expensive private schools with large endowments for less than the cost of our state flagship.

    I did feel sorry for friends who had to go to our state flagship because their parents wouldn’t pay for the fancy private schools they got into even though they could afford to with a little economizing.

    Not all top grad school programs take from all state flagships. Undergrad program, particularly research opportunities may be important for grad school admissions. One can always masters, but that has both direct cost and opportunity cost. How good is the undergrad bio program at your school?

    Also, my sister went private because she’s an engineer and our flagship had/has a huge problem retaining female students. We knew several dropouts who said it was a terrible major for women and ended up moving to liberal arts. So she toured schools and found one that has good stats on keeping women and the current students told her they felt supportive. It was the right choice.

  7. Well, first of all, there’s debt, and then there’s debt. If the kid has < say 25k of debt coming out of college, that shouldn't be a barrier to entry. Insisting on ZERO DEBT EVER i think can blind you to genuine opportunities, and I've known several people whose atavistic aversion to debt has hurt them in the long run. Obviously (say) 100k undergrad debt on either family or student is ridiculous. Also if they get into U. Oklahoma (guessing here) and Princeton, Williams or out-of-state Berkeley/Michigan/UVA, you're crazy to not take some amount of combined student+parent debt to finance the fancier experience. UNLESS they'd genuinely be unhappy at a Princeton or Williams, hence "fit."

  8. I think one of the big differences is class size and whether or not your kid will be overwhelmed by a huge number of classmates. I went to a small, private school and was able to build relationships with my professors from the beginning. All but my intro bio course was <30 people in a class, and even the big class was only ~50 people. I would not have been happy going somewhere with 100+ people in intro classes, and tens of thousands of people on campus. Just too many people! But, I am a country girl, and still don't like doing more than visit a city.

  9. Re: what counter fly says, Liz pulliam weston has a good heuristic about how much debt a kid should take on for college– no more than the average starting salary of someone coming out of the kid’s chosen major at that school.

  10. I did feel sorry for friends who had to go to our state flagship because their parents wouldn’t pay for the fancy private schools they got into even though they could afford to with a little economizing.

    Why did you feel sorry for them? Did they all end up doing poorly in life? Was their education actually bad or otherwise inadequate?

    atavistic aversion to debt

    I thought my only atavism was my ability to wiggle my ears, but I guess I will add aversion to debt to the list. I am averse to my kids taking on debt without a good reason precisely because I know how hard it is to pay it off when life gets in the way.

    What I hear is that I would be crazy not to let my son have the $60-70k/yr experience, and the main reason seems to be so he’d rub elbows with those who want to rule the world (top-dog lawyers, bankers, assorted Trump children, etc.) I am not sure this sounds like an appealing crowd for Eldest. Maybe for Middle Boy, who does plan to rule the world.

    I am at a great state school. UC Berkeley is not 3x better but would cost 3x as much (colleague across the hall has a kid at Berkeley and it’s about that much more expensive total). I have yet to hear an actual reason other than elbow rubbing with the future greats for shelling $60-70k/yr.

    See, I would understand borrowing money so you would go to college in the first place. And of course if you are meritorious and get a nearly full ride to a great school, by all means do it! I know state schools cannot match these opportunities for low-income folks. What I do not understand is why it would actually be so inferior and set my son back in life and whatnot to go to a great state school and graduate with no debt, versus go to another state’s great school at 3x the price, or to a private school where so far I have heard one buys the name and a chance for elbow rubbing for 3x the price of the state school while the student and parents (who have other kids and a mortgage) take on considerable debt.


    While I was writing the above, natalieinne posted on some kids preferring small class size. That’s a fair point. But there are smaller campuses in my state’s university system, I could send him there, right? I know at this point everyone would say that he absolutely would have to go to a selective private college, again at $60-70k/yr, rather than some lowly state non-flagship, where he would have lots of opportunities to mingle with people from different backgrounds, such as low-income or first-generation students, or students going to school part-time and working full time.

    It pisses me off to no end that it’s not about the objective and presumably large differences in the quality of education; rather, it’s about signaling of where one belongs classwise, the pedigree.


    What’s interesting is where Eldest’s swim buddies have gone to school. Those are all smart and hardworking kids and some have even well-off parents (much better off than us). The vast majority is attending our big state school, and the rest are in a couple of state schools in neighboring states, often joining friends or older siblings.


    The main thing is Eldest actually wants to go here. He has great grades and I am pretty sure he’ll do great on the ACT and will be able to get into some of the more coveted schools if he applies. I am trying to understand why they are so coveted and whether he’ll gain something real in them that should be kept in mind as a superior option to going here. So far I cannot see a real reason to push him consider these options that would also be financially straining.

  11. graduated undergrad over a decade ago, with minimal debt, but did the grad school thing, so STILL paying that off. Don’t go into massive debt if you don’t have to, just don’t

  12. You have to remember that all the superselectives are essentially a lottery, so even if your child applies to a lot of them, the expected number of acceptances is small—it is essential to have a few good, but not superselective, schools in the mix. I think my son would have been a good fit at Harvey Mudd, and I was willing to pay for it, but he didn’t get in. He ended up in the College of Creative Studies at UCSB—not super selective (about 35% acceptance rate to UCSB), but quite good in his major (computer science). He has been happy there and has had only a few supersize courses (like linear algebra with over 400 students) and a lot of tiny classes (all his CCS courses, several of his math courses, and his acting courses). He has gotten individual faculty advising each quarter and started doing research with faculty in his sophomore year.

    What you do in college matters more than what college you go to, but it is important to go to a college that can teach the things you are interested in. For my son, that meant having a lot of CS courses (he already had the equivalent of the first 2 years of a computer engineering degree, though not on paper) and being able to act in theater productions (which cut out some schools that reserve that for theater majors). CCS at UCSB provided a very good combination of the advantages of a small school with the academic resources of a large R1 university. Look for similar honors programs in other state schools (they are not that common, though).

    Name brand on schools matters only for the final degree, and matters more in some fields than in others. (Business and law seem to care most about name brand, but academic positions in almost all fields seem to care about the brand name on the PhD.)

  13. Xyk,

    Let me ask you and your readers, since this is something I seem to always be on the outnumbered side of the argument on: why is the decision of which college to go to even made by the parents? And why would the parents ever consider taking on debt to pay as opposed to letting their kid decide (and take on the debt themselves)?

    I think the gambler in me is unable to comprehend debt aversion. And the defiant teenager in me is unable to yield decision-making power to the parents. I recall taking great pride that I chose my (not very good nor cheap) college and paid my way by combo of loans, scholarships, and working.

  14. @grumpy, college has gotten a lot more expensive as private schools have raised tuition and state schools have been defunded by the state. It is very difficult for a student to pay their own way through college now.

    My parents paid for me (and my 3 siblings) to go to college, on a smaller income than I have (even accounting for inflation), so I can certainly pay for my only son to go to college. I did not choose where he went to college—it was entirely his choice (or, more accurately, the colleges’ choice, since he did not get into his top choices). I saved enough money in a 529 account that he could go wherever he got in. There is more money in the account than needed for his 4-year degree, so we’ll be paying for his MS as well. He’s not decided whether or not he’ll go for a PhD—he is in computer science where an MS degree is more employable (except in academia), and a professorial life is not that appealing to him, as he sees the workload involved. He’d rather design things than grade papers.

    I have a high debt aversion—I have only ever borrowed for my mortgage, and I paid that off as soon as I possibly could (of course, my first mortgage was at 14%, so I had really strong incentive to pay it off). I am generally very risk averse and penny-pinchingly frugal—I’ll only buy things if I can afford them without debt and if I think that they will be worth what I spend on them.

  15. why is the decision of which college to go to even made by the parents?

    Grumpy, that’s a good question. Technically it’s not really the parents’ decision, but I don’t think many kids are as rebellious as you were and will gladly take parents paying over parents not paying. Especially, as gasstationwithoutpumps says, because the costs have gone waaaay up. It is Eldest’s decision and he’s the one who wants to go here; it’s me obsessing over whether he’s maximizing his potential by going here and whatnot (I am not kidding; he was signing up for ACT and entered just one school to send scores to; we chatted so he’d figure out if there were a few more he’d like to send to just in case, since it’s included in the cost of the test). If Eldest were dead-set on going to an expensive school it’s not like we would stop him, but we would be limited in how much we could contribute and somebody would have to take on loans. I would personally advise him against too much debt and against too much work (shown to interfere with completion), but it’s not like we would prevent him from going where he wanted.

    As for debt aversion… For me, it’s based on personal experience. Having debt really sucks, and especially so when you have dependents. If Eldest has a lot of debt out of undergrad, it will interfere with his ability to move on with life. It will affect various personal decisions, such as which job to take (maximizing earning potential to pay off debt over other important aspects), deciding when and if to buy property and have a family, etc. Having debt is like having shackles.

    gasstationwithoutpumps: One reason my school is so attractive to him is exactly what you mention — excellence in chosen fields. The bio fields are great here and he will also have the ability to continue pursuing music.

  16. I went to a top 3 UG institution and also did a grad degree there. Previously, I had attended the last two years of high school at my state’s flagship R1 (a very good one, by all accounts), as part of a policy in our state for high-achieving students. I am 100% convinced that the fancypants private school was objectively and categorically one hundred times better than the state flagship. There is no comparison in the world that makes any sense to me between the two, and what it comes down to is money and resources. The private school had them in spades. We had significantly smaller class sizes, which meant we were able to develop close relationships with professors. Our professors has extremely light teaching loads (comparatively), so they had energy and time to spend on us while still doing their cutting-edge research. In the STEM classes I took, we had the best of the best of the best equipment and resources, and many of our classes were taught in part by industry leaders and innovators on the cutting edge of what they do. In humanities classes, we had a copyright library so I had literally every book I ever wanted at my fingertips, along with some of the most renowned writers, thinkers and practitioners in the country as professors (permanent or visiting). I mean, I got to take seminars and attend lectures by some of the most legendary and influential thinkers in my field, and that definitely had a direct impact on the path my life took. Because the university was so wealthy, we had an excellent and comprehensive residential education programme, which presented further opportunities that just could not be matched elsewhere. I could go on and on about it, but I’ll just say that, in my own experience, the fancy private school offered things which fundamentally altered the course of my life in highly positive ways, and had resources which just would not have been available elsewhere. But that’s just my own opinion – if your Eldest wants to go somewhere in state then there’s no problem with that.

  17. Being an Alum from a fancy, private PUI, the biggest reason, IMO, is that at a small private school you get the 1:to:1 attention from Profs – not only in class, but also including leading research projects in the lab rather than the more likely case of being designated “first lackey” for a postdoc or grad student at an R1 lab. I also happen to be a proponent of liberal arts education in that I think it’s important that people do some serious thinking in areas outside their particular interest area. I think that at certain large public institutions, there’s lip service paid but in the end it’s “just getting your geneds done” and students don’t take it too seriously.

    You also are taught entirely by faculty whose career advancement relies heavily on the quality of their teaching. So they are incentivized to do a good job. Since you’re likely to do research / scholarship work with maybe 1 or 2 faculty I think that aiming for the best quality classroom/lecture/lab teachers is rational from the student perspective.

    Now I don’t want to say that there aren’t excellent teachers at R1 places – of course there are. But there are also people who put very little (no!) time into preparing for teaching, and there are people who actively hate it and phone it in. And I also don’t want to downplay the utility of doing research with / learning music from “the best” – sometimes those connections are really important too. But there is a pro-con here.

    As for the cost, your family might consider the option of a Public PUI / liberal arts school! Usually, Tuition is even less than at the R1. But in many cases the facilities are great (since they have access to state money), and in some cases they are selective or even highly selective just like a flagship R1 or private PUI. OTOH I know that the availability / quality of public PUIs depends a lot on how the particular state has organized it’s higher education system. But they are out there.

  18. I went to a top SLAC as an undergrad, grad/postdoc at ivies and now am faculty at state R1. Research/internship opportunities at SLAC were handed to us on a silver platter with funding attached. Ivies also were very well resourced, but faculty cared way less about undergrads. At R1 some faculty care about undergrads, but many don’t. Still, Eldest will have the huge benefit of your expertise to help navigate to make sure he finds the coveted opportunities at R1 – I have seen many amazing students for the first time in the senior years with no real research/internship experience because no one ever told them to ask. That scenario would not happen at a SLAC, but it is also unlikely to happen for a savvy undergrad at an R1 who knows to ask for opportunities from the get go.
    As to all the Ivy clubs where old boys measure their dick sizes or whatever … yeah, they definitely exist, as does general awe of Ivies. But that whole idea of anti-meritocracy mostly just makes me angry.
    Re: “The main thing is Eldest actually wants to go here” – then it seems like a no brainer to me. Ultimately it should be his choice.

  19. I think it really depends on the state flagship. Where I am in New England, our state flagship is a decent school but can’t really provide the top-notch access to research experiences and extracurricular experiences that a liberal arts or Ivy could provide. A kid really has to be a go-getter, and even then it’s hard to find the same opportunities. But part of that is the culture of New England — I don’t like it, but if you want a top-notch education in New England you often have to pay for it. For background, I grew up in a neighboring New England state and during K-12 went private-public-private, and then did Ivy for college. Then I did Ivy for grad school, R1 state flagship for postdoc (UC Berkeley), and now am at a small liberal arts college as faculty.

    Here’s the big difference I see: when I was a postdoc at Berkeley, I wanted to take on an undergrad or two for a research experience. I put out an ad and got a stack of applications, including at least half a dozen straight-A students. I took on two students, and they were as fabulous as they looked on paper; one went to work for Google after graduation and the other is now doing a PhD at an Ivy. I’m sure any of the other straight-A students (or even a lot of the not-straight-A students) would have been just as good, but I have no idea what happened to them or whether they wound up having the opportunity to do research at all. Here at my liberal arts college, anyone who wants to do research gets to do research, and they get personalized attention and mentoring from *all* of the faculty on top of that. I know all of our majors not just by name, but also by their personal goals and aspirations and their performance in usually 2 or 3 of my classes. And at the risk of being self-aggrandizing, they are getting top-notch research experiences here — my colleagues and I have strong track records of competing for time on national and international facilities at the top of our fields. Our teaching load is low enough that we publish a lot too (my load here is one course per year higher than it would have been at the state flagship R1 whose offer I turned down to come here). It’s just a whole different ballgame from Berkeley, where I felt like even the really good students had to compete from the beginning for resources and opportunities, and tended to be names and numbers to the faculty rather than whole people. I KNOW a good student will do well here (and honestly, even a slightly mediocre student will do well), whereas I always wonder what happened to those Berkeley students who didn’t quite make it to the top of my stack of applicants.

    Since I have a fair amount of experience at Ivies as well, I will say that I think the main benefit is the incredible community of students — not so much for who you know in later life (although that’s been interesting) but because being part of a community of such incredibly talented and motivated undergraduates is an amazing and motivating experience. I had never been so much a part of a community of the mind as when I went to an Ivy for college, and it changed my relationship with my academic work. Also, the insane amount of money around you means that the opportunities are insane. As a kid from a solidly middle-class background, the world opened up to me at my Ivy. As part of my various campus activities I traveled to two new continents and had educational experiences I couldn’t have dreamed of growing up in my rural town, all at minimal/no cost to my family (I was on a ton of financial aid, and graduated with only $8k in debt, which I had saved up enough to pay off by the end of my first year of grad school).

    That said, you’d probably get a very different answer from my husband, who went to a flagship state school in the Midwest and then did his PhD at Stanford. He has zero complaints about his college education, and it clearly hasn’t held him back, even if he doesn’t gush about it like I do (but then, he’s not really a gusher like I am). If you’re lucky enough to live in a state where you have a truly top-notch state flagship campus (like… Virginia, Wisconsin, California, etc.), AND if you think your kid is the sort of go-getter who will put himself out there and seek out opportunities even if he gets knocked down the first few times he tries for them, it does seem kind of nutty to pay $240k for something he could get essentially for free. So, it depends on the kid, and it depends on the state, and it also depends on the alternatives (e.g., did he get into an Ivy) — I don’t think this is a simple calculation.

  20. I went to an ivy for undergrad, and I feel like it opened doors to me in terms of graduate school in my field – I was explicitly told by the grad admissions chair at MIT that for less prestigious schools, they are only willing to look seriously at an application if the letters of rec say “this is the best student I’ve seen in many years,” whereas from an ivy or top-top liberal arts college they will seriously consider an application from even someone who is not the best in their year. I really feel pretty strongly that I wouldn’t have gotten in to my grad program if I’d gone to a less prestigious school. Once I realized the kinds of relationships students have with their professors at small liberal arts schools, I kind of wished I had had that (and now I work at that kind of place), but those schools don’t prepare students for grad school (in math) as well as larger research universities, so that can be limiting. (Although I think that is highly field specific.)

    It sounds like your state flagship would be a great place for your Eldest. It’s affordable, he wants to go there, and they have great programs in his areas of interest – I’m not seeing much downside.

  21. @xyk

    We don’t know the true counter-factual, do we? It’s hard to say if they would have done better if they’d been able to go to UChicago or Notre Dame or Northwestern or Columbia. Also, not all of them went to the state flagship instead– sometimes other schools offered more money. They certainly didn’t end up doing as “well” in terms of graduate school as people who were able to make the opposite choice. Some of them didn’t even graduate college. But then, people who were able to make the opposite choice had parents who valued education over new cars and music cds (back when these were relatively expensive) and Hawaiian vacations and clothing and so on. These were kids who had been denied nothing their entire lives and then partly because of that their parents had no money for college. Every extra penny my parents had was funneled into enrichment and investment and we were promised that we might not have a dishwasher or microwave or vcr or dryer, but we would be able to go to whatever college we wanted to. And we did. That was a strong signal of our family values.

    Now, our state flagship has some truly stellar programs. Some people from my high school (like the other half of my blog) did choose it over other schools precisely because it was really good in their major of interest. My SIL would have been much better off professionally given her major if she had chosen the flagship instead of a crummy but still expensive local SLAC (she failed to get into a graduate program then worked as a daycare instructor for a couple of years, and is now a semi-permanent stay-at-home mom). Those folks who actively chose the state flagship as their first choice are doing just fine– many of men moved to Silicon Valley right after college and are now multi-millionaires, just like the ones who went to Stanford instead. Most of the women are doctors or professors at R1s, just like the folks who went to Ivies.

    People who went to Caltech had a rough time. I feel guilty pushing my ex-boyfriend there when he could have graduated our state flagship in 2 years. People who went to MIT seemed to do fine, though I know at least one who graduated early and then burned out after getting a phd (early) at Stanford and is now kind of a vagabond.

    In my home state, the flagship doesn’t have some majors that are the shining star major in one of our regional universities, so people in that major go to the regional instead if they can get into that program. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, so I went to a top-tier small liberal arts college. That was a great fit for me.

    So I think my bottom line is that individual program matters. It’s not a “state flagship at cost is the best choice” vs. “Harvard at cost is the best choice” in all situations. Even R1 have crappy undergraduate programs in some fields and stellar ones in others.

    And if your son is a top student or a good athlete or musician he will likely get varying amounts of scholarship from different schools even if he doesn’t get need-based aid. Some amounts might make the difference between your local R1 and another school not as big so the difference may be less.

    The quality of the program is important, the undergraduate experience is important (in terms of education and support), and some of these differences may be worth paying for, but you have to look at it on an individual basis.

  22. I went to non-fancy private liberal arts school and the benefit I got there over public school is the interactions with PUI professors and class sizes that got as small as 3! In upper level physical science classes I know it was a huge benefit for my learning style to have these classes (avg size ~10).

    It also fit having double major/multiple minors… I did music minor and a physical science minor in addition to my major and the liberal arts environment meant I could do that easily. In retrospect I really appreciate that I got to take so many non-science classes before I got into the dregs of all science all the time in graduate school, postdoc, etc.

    Private doesn’t necessarily mean expensive. Fancy private does, but there are plenty of middle of the road privates that give a ton of merit based aid. The cost to me was the same as if I went to a higher ranked state school in my state. You don’t get the networking perks of the fancy ivies and such, but I had a very enjoyable time. Maybe take some time to look at a few.

  23. @xyk

    Ah–if all you are worried about is that Eldest will be compromising his future attending your very good flagship state school vs an expensive private school, then I think you should stop worrying. If he wants to attend the school, and it has the programs that match his goals, then it is a smart choice. It is easier to get overlooked at a state school vs a smaller private school, especially for the unmotivated or those unfamiliar with how a US University works, but Eldest has you to help him out there. At Ivy-type schools opportunities are thrown at you, but many similar opportunities are available at a flagship, and you would know how to find them (or at least who to ask, in the case of music opportunities).

    I went to a fancy private school, which I enjoyed and appreciated. As an extreme introvert (especially at 18), I would likely have had problems finding opportunities at a huge school that were handed to me at private school, especially since neither of my parents had any experience with the US University system. That said, I didn’t have close relationships with any of my professors except for my research advisor (extreme introvert) even though my classes were small. I would send my kids to my alma mater if they really wanted to go and got in (but they would really have to want to go), but I will probably send my kids to ProdigalU (which is a great school, and has some truly stellar programs in many departments) unless they are really, really passionate about attending a smaller (and more expensive) school. I don’t think your son would be giving anything up attending the program he wants at a good state school, and graduating with no (or low) debt is a huge advantage.

  24. I cannot speak to the general question, but I can say that for me personally, the choice to go to a rigorous private college (in my case, University of Chicago) is likely to have made a real difference in my life trajectory. For various reasons, I didn’t really take my capabilities seriously as a teenager. I wanted to, but I lacked confidence. The college I chose was such that I could not have made it through with the grades I did if I did not have capabilities worth taking seriously, and that helped set me on the path to having more confidence and expecting more from myself. I think I could have gotten an equivalent education at my state flagship, but I don’t think I would have been *forced* to get that education, and I think the being forced to stretch myself in all sorts of intellectual directions was good for me.

    But that is a very individual reason, and would not be relevant to a lot of people. Also, I had a full tuition scholarship, so I did not go into debt.

    I should add that for some of my classmates at the UofC, it was terrible choice and they would have been better off at a different school.

    I think the general case is that you have to think about what the individual needs in order to succeed to their full potential, and look for what universities will provide that.

    We’re still several years off from having to think about this for my kids. There are quite a few state schools in our state (California) that I think are generally great, but we haven’t started thinking either about what our kid might need or what various schools would provide.

  25. Wow this generated a lot of comments. As someone who has two kids in college (and made mistakes) I can say with some confidence GMP’s choices and attitudes are correct. Just proceed using the same judgment in making financial and college related decisions.

  26. I’m coming late to the discussion, but maybe have a relevant perspective. I did freshman year of undergrad at Princeton, then transferred to a state flagship R1 very strong (not top 10 but top 20) in my STEM field (transfer was for personal reasons not important here). The environments were totally different, and the biggest difference was the cohort of my fellow students. It was invigorating to be at Princeton, but WAY easier to stand out as a top student at the state R1. I felt the quality of instruction was comparable in STEM and biology at the R1. For PhD I stayed at the same R1 (did not apply anywhere else), for postdoc went to UC Berekley, currently Assoc. Prof. at a name brand private med school/grad school. I do not believe my choice of undergrad or PhD institution held me back in any way. For getting into grad school, research experience was more important than anything else, and I had worked my way through school as a lab tech and published papers including one as first author– a major differentiating factor. For getting the best postdoc, it only mattered (on top of grades and test scores ) who was my PhD advisor and how productive I had been in his lab– he was very well known in his field and top editor of important society journal. For getting the faculty position in a biomedical field where postdocs are necessary and long, it mainly mattered who was my advisor and how much and in what journals I had published. I absolutely do not believe that “academic positions in almost all fields seem to care about the brand name on the PhD”; that is definitely not true after a productive 6-year postdoc with NAS member at Cal. On grad admission committee for my current institution, I of course do notice when applicants are from ivies, Cal, or similar name brand, but research experience and letters from research advisors trumps all, especially if the applicant has published peer-reviewed papers, even little ones in a different field.

    The only counter argument I can think of against the state R1 for your son, is what if he were to decide not to pursue an advanced degree, like if he thought of going to industry with BS or masters, I would guess that in this scenario the undergrad institution could matter a lot more and impact on competitiveness. Or if he switched to a field where the institution was not so strong, or outside of the sciences completely. I don’t have much insight there. Good luck! I will be considering these choices in a few years as MY eldest is now in middle school.

  27. It is crazy to use the UG college you went to as a filtering mechanism later in life (for jobs, postdocs, etc). It may sound tacky, but the solution should be to do one or both of the following:

    1. Apply to the Ivies and if you get in, list it on your resume. That is: “Accepted into Harvard, MIT, …” after high school. (But you chose to go to the State flagship.)

    2. List your SAT/ACT score and/or percentile in your resume. For example, an SAT score of 1510 or higher in V+M rates you in the top 0.8% of students (~14,000 in number) in the country. The total number of students in the Ivies is also about the same. Hence, a top SAT score means you are Ivy-caliber, even if you chose not to go to an Ivy.

  28. expat_academic, thanks! I had read the essay years ago, but didn’t realize how much I had forgotten about what’s in it. It was good to read it again — thanks for the link!

  29. My pleasure. This is a topic that I think about a lot, as a graduate of a fancy American SLAC who now works as an academic at a non-US institution. I’m still a true believer in the kind of SLAC that I went to, but at the same time I can recognize how deeply strange that belief is to my current students and colleagues.

    My offspring is still a ways away from college, but I’m curious to see how s/he ends up approaching the decision of where to go.

  30. @Ninja, I just have to say in case anyone comes across this post and considers following your advice… it is VERY bad advice. As a hiring manager, I would probably toss that resume because listing where you got in for college or your SAT scores (if not specifically asked for them) is an incredibly pretentious and clueless move. It speaks of someone full of their own intelligence (as measured by one set of incomplete measures) and not at all clued in to how the work world functions (where you need multiple types of intelligence, some of which are invisible to the SAT). Most people try to avoid hiring people like that. I am more forgiving than most when reviewing resumes, because I know not everyone has access to good advice. But it would be hard to get past that.

    The only thing I can think of as more off-putting was the guy who sent us a cover letter saying he had “god-like” programming abilities.

    For the record, I don’t use undergrad institution as a filtering mechanism. I know some people do, and that is unfortunate and wrong-headed. Even more people use their networks to hire, and if they went to a “brand” school, their network will be weighted towards that school. This is also unfortunate. You can overcome either of those two unfortunate hiring behaviors by networking effectively. You cannot overcome being a prat, though, so if you are one, it is best to hide it rather than broadcast that fact by doing something like listing your SAT scores on your resume.

  31. I know you don’t want us to say this, xyk, but are you sure the financial support at top private universities is really so bad? The whole point is that they don’t give loans anymore, just grants, but there are probably subtleties of which I’m not aware.

    This is *just an anecdote* and not meant to sound arrogant: I strongly suspect I would not be a prof today with my own lab had I not gone to Princeton. It was only through close interaction with profs as an undergrad that I really understood what research was (how fun it was intellectually, what the actual process of forming ideas and projects looked like, what the cutting edge was) and changed direction. My sister went to Stanford and got nothing like that, and she is mixed on whether it was worth it. Husband thinks Harvard was good but not great for similar reason. Obviously this is all terribly post hoc, and we lack replicates.

    People who are already very focused and plan to stay that way can probably do well at any institution strong in their area of interest, but for others, it can be worth it to go to places where they can play anywhere.

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