Elite U? Only if it Makes (Dollars and) Sense

December 20, 2013

799240_origThe lure of an elite undergraduate institution is undoubtedly very powerful.  And if you have the credentials and money to comfortably matriculate, by all means… However, if finances are tight and the financial aid isn’t right, take a moment to put your education and career into perspective.

In today’s economy, an undergraduate degree is necessary but not sufficient to enter many of the most sought after professions.  Prospective employers in a number of fields, including medicine, law, government, and education, give priority to graduate education, because it is in graduate school where students acquire industry-specific experience and skills.  This being so, you may want to consider saving your money (or debt) for grad school while looking for more affordable undergraduate options.

Now, some of you may be thinking: “But I can’t get into the best grad schools without first going to an elite institution!” Not true. Excellent grades and test scores always take precedence over undergraduate institution. In other words, it’s not where you go, but what you do during your undergraduate years that really matters.  Harvard Medical School puts it best—according to its admissions website, HMS is “looking for people with broad interests and talents, not for students from particular academic institutions.”

In addition to accounting for the possibility of graduate school, you may also want to consider potential career paths when determining whether to break the bank on an elite college.   If you are fortunate enough to have developed one or more career-related interests, make it a point to research salaries and entrance requirements in your prospective profession(s).  Upon doing so, ask yourself the following questions: How many years of education (post high school) are required? What does the average employee earn?  Does earning a degree from an elite institution put me at a significant advantage over other job candidates in my field?

For example, if you aspire to a career in finance, you may find that shelling out a significant amount of money for an elite undergraduate degree is a worthy investment, given that school prestige plays a considerable role in the hiring process and that your anticipated income will be sufficient to cover a sizable monthly loan payment.  However, if you dream of becoming a school teacher, you may find that spending an exorbitant sum on your undergraduate education is not the smartest idea, since there are a number of affordable, public universities which offer excellent teacher prep programs and tremendous opportunities to network with potential employers.

Whatever path you decide to travel, it is always wise to place college within the context of your current circumstances and future goals.  Your life and education do not end upon receiving your undergraduate degree, so plan accordingly.  And if you find that attending an elite institution is either unaffordable or financially impractical, don’t distress.  There are hundreds of excellent, relatively inexpensive colleges, which can provide you with the knowledge and skills you need to effectively pursue your career ambitions.