a question regarding the cost of higher education

Lora sent an email and asked the following question:

“My younger sister is approaching the time to apply to college. She is mainly thinking of applying to Ivy League schools. She is doing extremely well in school but our family is not rich. I have tried to talk her out of it but so far peer pressure (she attends a very competitive high school) is stronger than her family’s opinion. I say that she should consider those schools only if she gets scholarships and even then I am not sure.

How else can I explain to her that it is not really worth taking out student loans for private colleges?”

First of all, I’m not sure I would say that taking out a student loan to attend a private college is NEVER worth it. If the private school has a particular speciality not commonly offered at most universities, it might be worth it. Maybe your sister has a strong desire to study Sanskrit or nanotechnology. In those cases, attending a public university might not provide the program she needs to pursue her goals. Also, people who move about in the world of politics or diplomacy or international affairs are often graduates of the Ivy League. If she wants to be in the highly-connected world of politics, attending an Ivy League or other big-time private school is probably more useful than attending State U. (However, if she is more interested in state politics, the opposite might be true. I attended a large Southern state university, and in that state I can assure you a degree from State U was a LOT more helpful than a degree from any of the Ivys would have been.)

Having said that, I am a HUGE proponent of public education and public colleges in particular. I was accepted to an Ivy League school (Harvard) and declined in favor of attending a state university. Why? I had little interest in what Harvard could offer me. I was able to attend a state school with massive scholarships that not only allowed me to graduate debt-free, but even leave college having made a PROFIT. I was heavily involved in activites beyond academics; I played a varsity sport, I was active in a fraternity, I was involved in a dozen different clubs and organizations and I even had time to work doing something I love (teaching middle school). I was in an honors program, which meant my freshman English literature course had eight students and was taught by a full professor in a roundtable setting, something you would never see in many big private school’s English lit 101 course (I know from friends who attended Ivies).

From the first day on campus, I was a big fish in a big pond and I grew tremendously from the experience. The first day I started I was one of a dozen students invited to dinner with the school president. At an Ivy I have no doubt I would have done alright, but I would have been one overachiever among many, and I would have graduated much poorer. That to me is the key. From day one in my working life I have been debt-free. I work side-by-side with people who attended expensive private schools who are STILL laboring to get out of debt.

Your sister needs first to understand her goals. If her goal is to attend an Ivy League and go on from there to be an investment banker, a $160,000 loan will probably be relatively easy to pay off if she does well in the business world (that’s a big IF, though). If her goal is to attend an Ivy League school and major in Art History, she may find that debt crippling. My father attended a very prestigious school in Boston and was still paying his student loans off when I was a teenager. So if her goals are fame, fortune and caviar dreams, then she can risk it all on an expensive school. If her goals are happiness and success and doing what she loves regardless of the compensation, starting life out heavily in debt could cripple her chances of doing that.

So to answer your question, maybe you should ask your sister what she would like to do when she graduates. Go to salary.com and find out what a person makes in that profession. Calculate the cost of a student loan. Take the salary and then back out taxes and the loan, and ask her if she’s prepared to live off of that for 10-15 years until the loan is paid off. Ask her if she’s prepared to live with the financial choices she makes now for decades to come, or if she wants to graduate debt-free and that much closer to financial freedom. Ask her if the field she studies has famous professors, and if so where do they teach? Many of the best professors in America teach at public universities.

And finally, be prepared to let her make her own decisions…and her own mistakes or successes. That’s part of the lifelong learning process just as surely as History 101 is.

  • http://patientinvesting.blogspot.com/ Jon

    Another thing to consider is undergraduate vs. graduate school. The reason MIT and Harvard are so famous isn’t because of their undergraduate programs (though they’re good), it’s because of the grad schools. If she’s going to do grad school, it would be a good idea to save money on the undergrad education since nobody’s going to really care about the undergrad degree anyway.

  • http://plonkee.com/ plonkee

    Note that you don’t have to pay for grad school in the hard sciences – they’ll pay you (not a lot, but enough).
    I believe that some private colleges can work out to be cheaper than public universities, if you get scholarships and so on. I know in particular that Ivy League institutions meet total assessed (by them) need which could conceivably work out a better deal than a state school which can’t afford to offer the same package.
    She should apply to colleges that fit, including one she can be certain to both get into and then afford. Once all the acceptances and financial aid packages are in it will be easier to make a good decision.

  • http://www.paidtwice.com paidtwice

    I went to a expensive liberal arts college, not quite an ivy but highly ranked. My spouse went to a public university. I left with less student loan debt than he did. lol

    Every situation is different, but sometimes the private liberal arts colleges are the ones with money to give as grants. Alumnae tend to be quite devoted followers and contributors. I paid less than I would have to go to my state university.

    But, that being said, I truly believe in following your heart in what school to attend. Visit, learn, understand *why* you want to pick what you do.

    (and don’t know what you want to do before you get there or you cut out so many life experience choices in weird but cool classes)

    my 5.5 cents :)

  • SavingDiva

    I know this sounds horrible, but I think Lora should let her sister make her own choices. Her parents should clearly lay out how much, if any, of the tuition they will help with, and her sister should decide if she wants to take out loans to cover the rest.

    I know plenty of people that took out a lot of loans…and are still paying them off…and would not take back their undergraduate experience for any amount of money. I think college is a time for personal growth and development, and I think some people require an Ivy league atmosphere….My four years of undergrad were difficult, challenging, and fantastic…and none of that has anything to do with my classes…

  • http://www.bripblap.com bripblap

    @SD: I don’t think that sounds horrible at all – it’s similar to what I said. If she really has a good reason to go to school X, by all means go there! Same goes for everyone else’s comments – every situation is different. Happiness should be the goal.

    I think everyone’s more or less in agreement that as long as she understands her own situation and has a good solid motivation for doing what she’s doing, she’ll be fine. Too often we get caught up in analysis and cost-benefit and whatnot, when sometimes life just has to be lived. Whew, that’s my brief moment of philosophizing for the night!

  • Lora

    Hello. Thank you BB and all the commenters for your input.
    Jon: that is exactly what I told my sister – don’t spend too much money on undegrad. but go to a good school for grad. work.
    BB: my sister wants to do something in Finance (not Art), so nothing special.
    SD: I agree with you that she should make her own decisions (and mistakes). She is only 17 and doesn’t clearly know WHAT she wants to do and what she wants to accomplish. And my parents would not help her with tuition, especially if she chooses Harvard.

    I think all my lecturing is really irritating her by now, so I am going to stop. I am running out of steam.

    Thanks again.