Colleges to Avoid
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To those expecting a straightforward bash-list of institutions that we do not think highly of—we apologize for disappointing you. The internet is littered with “click-bait” lists of this ilk and, we get it, they’re fun. Unfortunately while a pure and simple list of “Colleges to Avoid” would titillate, it would also be disingenuous and ultimately unhelpful to prospective college students. This is due to the fact that the colleges that should be avoided are context-dependent and will vary by individual circumstance. Factors such as geographic location, the strength of the applicant, and family income level are all determining factors. If you’re on any kind of postsecondary budget, there are a litany of schools that should be avoided; in fact there may be hundreds or even in excess of 1,000 schools that you will want to avoid.
What Type of College Should I Avoid?
For any money-conscious college student, paying exorbitant tuition amounts and taking on large quantities of debt for the sake of attending a low-to-moderately prestigious school can be a monumental mistake. Unless they are paying in excess of 60K on a school that can provide them with a high return on their investment—a proposition that may be more dependent on their desired field than the name brand of the university—it is worth pursuing better values in the higher education marketplace.
As you will see, many of the schools that students should avoid are not “bad” schools by any means. In fact, quite often they are excellent institutions, but not at all worth the sticker price when weighed against other choices that educational consumers, stunningly, rarely even pause to consider.
Net Price by Income
Duke University, for example, has an intimidating $75,000 cost of attendance (COA). A family making $75,000 per year in annual income might conclude that their teenager, while brilliant, has no chance at becoming a Blue Devil—it’s just an economic impossibility. However, one look at the net price paid by Duke undergrads whose families make 75k-110k income reveals an average cost of “just” $24,000 per year. While still a lot of money, a $24,000 cost of attendance is closer to state school levels. The average student debt incurred during undergraduate study at Duke is $19,000, across all income levels. On top of the reasonable price of attendance, a degree from Duke, thanks to its reputation and powerful alumni network, can lead to a high return on investment.
Compare these numbers to a school like Whittier College in California, a school with a solid reputation, but one that wouldn’t be categorized as elite. Whittier’s official price tag is just shy of $60,000 (COA) which is less than Duke’s; yet, unlike Duke, most students, even those coming from families making $75,000 per year pay an average of $51,000 net price, more than double what a family in the same income bracket pays at Duke. As a result, the average Whittier grad will emerge with a debt load exceeding $33,000, 74% more owed than by the average Duke graduate.
No one would put Whittier on a generic list of “schools to avoid.” It’s a reputable school that cracks many “top college” guidebooks. However, for students lacking unlimited education funds, crossing Whittier off of their list may be an extremely wise decision.
Low Prestige + High Debt = Avoid
While our previous example pits a top-flight school against a lesser, but still very competitive school, there are countless examples of schools that charge high tuition, offer minimal aid, and do not provide students with top-flight job prospects needed to pay down the debt they accrue.
Take, for example, The University of Tampa, a private school costing a little over $40,000 per year. The net price, what students actually end up paying, is roughly 27k and family income plays a minimal role in the distribution of aid, meaning that those in the lowest bracket still pay close to 25k per year. As a result, the mean debt-load a student graduates with is around $45,000, a number which easily eclipses the average salary a University of Tampa grad will find early in their career. Therefore, a cost-conscious teen should avoid The University of Tampa.
We’re not picking on The University of Tampa. There are countless other schools with similarly disheartening numbers. Other universities where the average student is saddled with a 5-figure debt total every year in which they are enrolled include Drexel, Loyola University in Maryland, and most likely, a handful of moderately-to-less selective private institutions not far from your home.
In the absence of a comprehensive list, how will you be able to spot a school along these lines? Simple. Look for colleges with high acceptance rates, high net price tuition (remember, not sticker price), and excessive graduate loan debt (as a barometer, the national average for four years is $30,000) and avoid, avoid, avoid.
Another category of institutions that wise consumers will do well to steer clear of are out-of-state public schools. Flagship universities such as Penn State, UCLA, Michigan, University of Wisconsin-Madison, UVA, and UNC are all, understandably, a big draw to students from all over the country. However, flagship universities rarely offer significant aid packages to out-of-staters, leaving families stuck with the non-resident sticker price. In fact, in recent years some big-name publics have been admitting greater numbers of out-of-staters for purely financial reasons. This isn’t a matter of greed; state budget cuts have simply forced their hand.
Annual, out-of-state costs at the University of Michigan run more than $62,000, more than double what Michigan residents pay. UCLA charges nearly $25,000 more to those who hail from outside the Golden State. The University of Connecticut, a bargain for Connecticut residents at $12,800 per year, climbs to $35,000 for outsiders, and after accounting for (need-based and merit-based) financial aid, proves as more expensive than Wesleyan, Connecticut College, or Trinity—three elite colleges in the same state. Amazingly, thanks to the generosity of those three schools, each carries an average net price of 20k per year or less for students demonstrating financial need.
CT’s Final Thoughts
If you do your homework, the colleges and universities that grace your personal “avoid” list may surprise and, on the contrary, schools that you may never have considered as being financially within-reach may end up as viable options.
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent education consultant. He is a co-author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).