Colleges to Avoid

  Dave Bergman   Jun 03, 2015   College Search/Knowledge, Costs & Financial Aid   0 Comment

College to AvoidA quick glance at the “around the web” links housed underneath legitimate news articles on an unfortunate number of sites tell us two things: 1) people like lists 2) people like lists slamming someone or something—”20 Celebrities who got fat,” “15 Grossest cruciferous vegetables,” “17 Child actors busted for DUIs.” Whether its morbid curiosity or pure schadenfreude, human nature seems to draw us to such lists.

While a like-minded bash 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 post-secondary 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 you’re paying in excess of 40K on a school that can provide you with a high return on your investment—a proposition that is many times more dependent on your area of study than the name brand of the university—it is worth pursuing better, lesser-known values on the marketplace.

As you will see, many of the schools that you, personally, 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

Highly prestigious schools typically have eye-popping list prices but, thanks to endowments that resemble Scrooge McDuck’s vault, those with any degree of financial aid often receive a steep discount.

Duke University, for example, has an intimidating price tag of $44,000, yet the average price actually paid by attendees is $19,000 per year. Families making a net income under $75,000 per year pay an average of just over 14k per year, a 68% savings. The average student debt incurred each year of undergraduate study at Duke is $7,300, 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 Ursinus College outside of Philadelphia, a school with a very solid reputation. Like Duke, Ursinus the official price tag is 44 grand per year. Unlike, Duke, most students, even those coming from families making under $75,000 per year pay the majority of the sticker price. Those from lower-income brackets still pay 25K while the average student forks over 32k per year. As a result, an Ursinus student can expect to take on $10,600 worth of debt per year, which spread out over four years, is over $12,000 more, on average, than your standard Duke grad.

No one would put Ursinus on a generic list of “schools to avoid.” It’s a terrific liberal arts school that easily cracks Princeton Review’s Top 379 Colleges and is even a featured school in the legendary Loren Pope book, Colleges that Change Lives. However, for students lacking unlimited education funds, crossing Ursinus 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 that costs over 30 grand a year in tuition alone. The net price, what students actually end up paying, is roughly 27k and family income plays a minimal role in the distribution of aid. Those in the lowest bracket pay the same 27k as everyone else. As a result the mean debt load a student graduates with is $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 students is saddled with a 5-figure debt total every year in which they are enrolled include Ohio Wesleyan, Xavier, Loyola-New Orleans, and most likely, a handful of less-selective regional 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. Please visit our Dataverse Page for these admission and financial aid-related statistics.

Out-of-state publics

Another category of school 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. They are premier research institutions with a smorgasbord of areas of study, a wealth of resources, big time sports programs, top-caliber professors, and attractive campuses brimming with student amenities. So why would such fine institutions be on anyone’s list of colleges to avoid? It’s all about the Clevelands ($1000 bill) or even Salmon P. Chases ($10,000 bill).

Flagship universities rarely offer significant aid packages to out-of-staters leaving families stuck with the non-resident sticker price. Annual, out-of-state costs at the University of Michigan run more than 50 grand, roughly double what Michigan residents pay. UCLA charges nearly $25,000 more to those who hail from outside the Golden State. Penn State, a bargain for PA residents, climbs to $43,000 for outsiders, and after accounting for (need-based and merit-based) financial aid, proves as more expensive than Franklin & Marshall, Lafayette, or Lehigh—three elite colleges in the same state. Amazingly, thanks to the generosity of those three schools, none has an average net price over 27K per year.

For more on why you might want to think twice before applying to out-of-state publics, revisit our previous blog on the subject.

Private colleges can offer great deals

Many of the nation’s top schools are able to offer a world-class education and a price well below the book-price tuition figure. In fact, students at premier schools such as Harvard, Yale, Pomona, Washington & Lee, and Haverford College typically pay between one-third and one-half of the stated price tag. The only problem, as in our earlier Duke example, is that these schools are among the most-selective in the entire world, meaning that the vast majority of applicants are left out in the cold. So, what’s a “B” student to do?

Fortunately, there is no shortage of quality institutions that offer generous aid, a fact that strong but not uber-elite prospective college students cannot afford to ignore. While we can’t profile every college who meets this criteria in this short blog, here a few examples:

Skidmore College: An excellent liberal arts school located in beautiful Sarasota Springs, New York, Skidmore has an intimidating annual cost of 45K that might make middle-class families instantly rule it out as a possibility. Yet, if you did deeper into their numbers, you’ll find that the average net price actually paid by the 2,500 Thoroughbreds (their mascot) on campus comes in at just over $22,500.

St. John’s College: With campuses in Annapolis, Maryland and Santa Fe, New Mexico, St. John’s offers students an opportunity to participate in their Great Books curriculum in an unparalleled intimate environment of under 500 total students on either campus. You might expect such a uniquely small educational institution to collect every penny of stated $46,000 annual tuition, but that simply isn’t the case. Students from middle-class families can study at either campus for somewhere in the neighborhood of 18-25k.

Hendrix College: Located about half an hour outside Little Rock, Arkansas, Hendrix is small liberal arts school with an enrollment under 1,500 students. Hendrix is known for offering unique opportunities for hands-on learning, a proposition that sounds expensive, and yet is enjoyed by the average student for $22,000 per year, $15,000 less than the official tuition cost.

CT’s bottom line: 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. If this piece left you craving actual list-lists, please google “32 Unforgettable Justin Bieber Mishaps” or “21 Diva Diet Secrets” and brace yourself for a full-on brain melt.

Dave Bergman
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: An New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).

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