Are Ivy League Schools Worth the Tuition?

by heather

Many parents are sending their kids off to college this month. And many more are starting the search for “the perfect school” for their high schoolers. You know, the kind of school that will almost guarantee a job when your grad leaves its hallowed halls four or five years later.

The problem is that many of these “hallowed halls”, especially Top Tier schools like Harvard, Stanford, Yale and Princeton, might not be worth the HUGE chunk of change many parents (and students) shell out to go there.

This all started on Facebook this morning. I had a really fascinating discussion with fellow blogger EcoKaren about the issue of tuition because not only is she in the process of packing her own son up to attend Duke University, but she’d just read an article about the high cost of these schools and why it might not be worth it.

So, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of attending a Top Tier school.


1. They Only Take the Best

When you attend a high-profile school you’re going to school with some of the brightest students in the world. There’s no doubt that this kind of diverse learning environment can foster all kinds of fascinating discourse and spark friendships that will last a lifetime. The ideas you’re exposed to in such a diverse environment can literally change the course of your life if you’re open minded.

2. You’re Buying a Brand

You have the added the prestige of the name (or “brand”) itself: when you graduate with a degree from a Top Tier school, employers immediately know you’re worth something. After all, if you got in then you must be smart, right? You also have the additional support of Alumni, and the Alumni association; often, these people are in powerful positions and can help you find a job not just after graduation, but for the rest of your life.

3. They’re Well-Endowed

Top Tier schools often have billions stashed in a Trust fund. They have excellent facilities and summer programs for students to take advantage of. This means libraries, research labs, sports teams, fitness centers…all these things are going to be top notch.


1. The Faculty Isn’t What You Think

Wait…isn’t the whole point of going to a Top Tier school to be taught by the best and brightest minds in the world?

You’d think so. But most of the time, that’s not the case.

According to journalist Lynn Sherr, writing for MORE, over 70% of college teachers, even at the Top Tier schools, are graduate students and adjunct faculty.

Really stop and think about this for a moment.

Over 70% of the faculty are graduate students and adjunct faculty.

That’s up from 43% in 1975.

The reason is because these grad students and adjunct faculty cost less than those “high profile” professors your kids are supposed to be taking classes from. The average teaching assistant at Yale earns $20,000.

2. They’re Crazy Expensive

Top Tier schools are insanely expensive. Harvard just raised its tuition to over $50,000 per year, which means it’s completely out of reach for low to middle-income families unless a scholarship is awarded. Most Top Tier schools now have yearly tuitions pushing the $40,000 to $50,000 per year mark. I mean, that’s more than many people’s annual income.

According to the Economist, tuition is currently rising at (at least) twice the rate of inflation. If you didn’t get a full scholarship or you don’t come from a wealthy family, either you or your parents are going to leave school crippled with debt that is going to take years to pay off. How much debt? Well, it’s going to vary pretty widely. But Consumerism Commentary ran the numbers and figured students leaving 4-year private universities had an average of $33,000 in debt.

But, you might ask, do you earn more when you graduate from these top colleges? Does it even out?

I couldn’t find numbers that dealt with Top Tier schools specifically. But I did find some handy numbers over at MSN Money.

They worked it out, and figured that investing in an Associate Degree in engineering or computers had the biggest payoff. You’re paying around $2,500 for that degree. And yet you’ll earn, over a high school graduate, $116,000 more.

Yeah, that’s a good investment.

3. You’re Getting Less

The Economist article states that most schools raised their tuition an average of 6.5% last year. Yet, students aren’t getting 6.5% more services or teacher face time. Chances are, they’re getting less since most states have had to slash their higher ed budgets.

Last Word…

I know this is probably going to be a contentious issue for many people. And of course, whether or not Top Tier schools are worth it is going to largely be based on your own backgrounds and beliefs, which is just as it should be.

Here’s my two cents.

I think higher education is an incredible experience for people both young and old. But I don’t think its greatest value lies in walking away with a degree. I think it’s far more valuable to learn how to think creatively on your feet, how to keep an open mind, how to work hard for something you want and how to communicate with a diverse group of people. These are the lessons I found most valuable when I went to school.

Most of the successful people I know or have read about didn’t even finish college. Greats like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg (inventor of Facebook) and Richard Branson were all dropouts.

Not that my income even comes close to those guys, but I have a successful writing business. And no, I never finished college either. I chugged my way through several community colleges, and took one copywriting course at a public university. And that’s when I threw in the towel.

If I had continued to pour more money into that university education I do not, for one minute, believe I’d be earning one cent more than I am now. In fact, I have a feeling that I would be earning less, because I’d have graduated with a journalism degree and spent a great deal of time looking for a job with a newspaper or magazine. Chances are high I’d be working for someone else, making far less than I do now.

What do you guys think? Are high-priced degrees worth the money? Do you believe people can make it without a degree at all? I’d love to hear your thoughts about this!


Jade @ Tasting Grace August 12, 2010 at 2:52 pm

I used to think that it doesn’t really matter what college you go to (unless you really care about “The Brand”) because what you get out of college? Is determined at least 75% by what you put into it. You can go to the best schools in the world, but if you don’t care about the material, you’re not going to get anything out of it. You can go to a small school, and really challenge yourself and learn all kinds of things as long as you’re curious and driven.

Also, the smaller schools are where you’ll find more teachers who care about teaching because they’re ones who have chosen “teaching-track positions”. At the bigger universities, you’ll find more professors who care most about their research and not about their students. Teaching classes is a chore that keeps them away from their real work. People who love to teach are scorned for not caring enough about research.

However, I have learned one important caveat that is becoming ever more true as the economy struggles. Go where the money is. Prospective students should focus on what major they’re interested in and choose schools that have fabulous departments, well reputed for that focus. Not only will they have talented faculty and grad students, they will also have more funding – which translates to more financial support, better facilities, and more resources. Popular and well-funded departments are better protected against economic woes. (This is especially a consideration at state schools that are subject to the whims of state tax policy moods.)

As far as The Brand goes, how much that matters really only depends on the field you wish to pursue, and the fields in which it does matter are probably pretty few and you know which ones they are (doctors, lawyers, top management in banking, politicians, etc.). For most careers, what matters more is your experience, talent, and fit with the environment in which you’re working.

heather August 12, 2010 at 3:09 pm

@Jade, Wow, thanks for that awesome, thoughtful comment! You’re exactly right, that college IS what you put into it.

And the point about professors caring about their research more at big schools is a great one; I stumbled upon that in my research and forgot to put that in there. Another factor in those bigger schools was tenure; once professors attain tenure they often get lazy. After all, they’re IN, you know? Many of them (certainly not all of course) can lose that passion for teaching when there’s no real incentive anymore.

What you say about teachers caring more at smaller schools rings true. I know I never attended a large university, but I’ve spoke with many students who had when I was at community college. Many of them said they got more value out of their community college classes simply because they were smaller and more personal. And the professors I studied under at CC were really wonderful.

I think community college is underrated by many people. But it’s such an awesome way to get a great education for an affordable price.

Thanks so much for this great response!

Blair August 12, 2010 at 3:16 pm

My brother started at a tiny 2 year college and transferred to Cornell for the last 2 years. He graduated right as the economy was tanking. He ended up getting a really good job with John Deere and I think the only real reason is because of where he graduated from. I think if he had finished from a state school at the same time that he would have had an incredibly hard time finding employment. Usually I would say that the big schools aren’t worth it, but in his case it seems like it was. However he also had a scholarship that paid for the tuition, so he doesn’t have any debt from the experience.

Matt August 12, 2010 at 3:46 pm

It really depends on the person and the career field. My degree and the school I went to (very competitive but not Ivy League) have both helped me. However, that’s not always going to be true.

One of the big bargains where I live (Virginia) is that we have a lot of great state schools. Even better – complete two years at any community college in Virginia and have a certain GPA, and you can get into any 4-year state school guaranteed. That’s a great way to take care of electives and figure out what you want to do without paying the major bucks.

Overall I don’t think the premium for Ivy League schools in particular is worth it (unless you get substantial financial help). Grade inflation is huge – practically everyone at Harvard gets at least a B. Some professors are great – but others aren’t there to teach, and as you pointed out many classes aren’t taught by full professors (though, by the way, adjunct faculty aren’t necessarily bad – some of my best profs have been adjuncts who teach because they LIKE IT).

The one great thing about going to a high-caliber school (though again it doesn’t have to be Ivy) is being surrounded by really smart people. That was one of the things I enjoyed most. The quality of casual conversations – and the scope of the topics – can be really good, and sometimes you end up learning more through those conversations than you do in classrooms.

heidi August 12, 2010 at 4:53 pm

Oooh, Heather. Another post that *really* hits home! Without going into the drama of how I ended up in and then out of a teeny liberal arts school, I’ll say this: not everyone needs to go to college. It’s hard to cut it without a degree, yes, but not everyone should go $20K+ into debt just to do what they’d be doing anyway… When I started in ’03, I was running on 12 years of burnout from a public high school that was WAY too big. So a small college was a great fit (developmentally), but realistically, I was still burned out. After pursuing seasonal bird biology jobs for a while, I went back to school part time at a community college and got SO much more out of it! I knew why I was there, I knew what I wanted out of it, I was paying for it directly (and still paying off loans for an unfinished degree…). Anyway, some of my closest friends did the Ivy League thing and I love them dearly – but they had scholarships. I’m looking at a career in which there have been, historically, no courses that could have prepared me for it (Ornithology doesn’t scratch the surface), so what I’ll earn is tiny compared to the student loans already piled up. Alas. Also, hubby has a Masters and has been unemployed for nearly 2 years – the competition doesn’t care how awesome you are, just that the economy is rough and you can get crazy qualified people for really low level jobs. Just because biology jobs got hit really hard in budget cuts =(

Trade schools are so under appreciated. You get in, you get certified, you get out. You’re set!

Enough rambling, thanks again for the brilliant post!

karen August 12, 2010 at 11:16 pm

So glad we chatted about how to work less this morning! See where it led to? … the root of the problem in America – not properly educating the work force and putting them into debt in college…even before they start working!

I found this list (and there are many many more…) on value of higher education among the national universities.

I am hoping that my son will make the best of the education he will receive, connections he will make, and invaluable experiences he will gain from being in a competitive environment. He worked very hard to be accepted Duke and even though he was accepted to a number of great schools, he really wanted to challenge himself at an institution that expects excellence. Yes, a state school would have been great for our bank account and yes, he would have had great classes with equally smart students. But, besides the fact that it’s a division I sport school (he will be fencing for the school team – ironically enough, Lynn Sherr does not think it’s important to spend so much money in sports!) he hopes to find similarly motivated students in his classes. I believe we are making the right choice…for him. My daughter, on the other hand, that’s another post! Thanks again Heather!

Kathleen Parker August 13, 2010 at 6:51 am

Hi Heather,
I really feel that there is two sides to this story. ( maybe more ) We have been indoctrinated to believe, that you have to have a college education. That high school is meaningless. My husband is an electrician and makes more than most of the engineers that he works with. His job is physical and theirs is not, so he’s probably considerably more tired at the end of the day. We wanted more for our children ( 2 ) so we paid their tuition at state schools, so they wouldn’t graduate with debt. Our son joined the USAF. lol They would have paid some of his college expenses retroactively, but he didn’t have any. Having a degree I think made him more astute, but not necessarily smarter. He was bright to start with. Our artsy daughter is an actress with a degree. In this economy, there are not many people going to the theater. She’s trying to get a job in a bar, so she can earn enough money to go to a city. Where she will probably work in another bar to support her art. Bottom line is, I think people need to follow their own path. If you yearn for something that requires a degree, go for it. But often, the degree is a piece of paper that will hang on your wall. it’s the experiences that each take with them that matters.

Jade @ Tasting Grace August 13, 2010 at 4:27 pm

As a college educator (one of those grad student TAs), I’ve thought about this issue a lot. What I see in undergrads is that many of them are just floating through college because it was just the next step after high school. They haven’t totally figured out what they want to do, and so they’re not really motivated to learn, thereby sinking thousands and thousands of (their parents’) dollars into an education they’re not really receiving – and no, grades are not a truly valid measure of what a student really gets from a class. Even though I myself am one who really values higher education, I think the huge push for more and more education is actually misguided, and may even just postpone maturity. For some people, going to a trade school, networking and getting real experience is going to help in their careers far more than a 4-year university. For others, it might be beneficial to take some time off after high school to travel or work to figure out who they are and THEN come back to school a little more grounded and ready to learn. Going to college is a well-considered decision, not an autopilot response.

You might be interested to watch this speech. Entertaining and eye-opening:

heather August 16, 2010 at 6:26 am

Hi Everyone,

Thanks to all of you for writing in! This is an awesome discussion, and I think it’s timely because so many people are looking at college choices for their high schoolers right now.

There’s no doubt that there are two sides to this. But I do think that Jade makes a great point in saying that many kids float through college, spending money on classes, when they’re not really sure what they want to do. On one hand, you DO go to college in part to help discover what you want to do. On the other hand, you could do this at a community college for a while for much less money.

Gobankingrates August 17, 2010 at 1:53 pm

I feel like the best part of attending an Ivy League are the connections you make and the high placed friends you make. And the school’s name for your interview. Personally, I only think its worth it if you get a scholarship. Your education will be just as good at another school and you’ll end up paying a lot less.

On a side note, you might want to check out a writing project we’re sponsoring at our site. You might want to submit this story since its already written 🙂

Brian August 26, 2010 at 1:58 pm

I agree with you completely. And here’s why….

Is a medical degree from Yale that much better than a degree from the University of Ohio-Dayton? I ask this because my own orthepedic surgeon who performed double knee surgery on me last year graduated from the latter. I am no less happy with the results of the surgery. Would a piece of Ivy League paper help me walk better? I doubt it. The arthritis damage is already done. There’s only so much repair that can be made.

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