If you don’t have the cash, is an Ivy League school or any other university that the college rankings gods worship worth the cost?
Affluent families have been asking me that lately.
Yesterday afternoon, for instance, I got a call from a dad in Maryland, who wanted my opinion about the three schools on his daughter’s short list. The father had never visited my college blog. He didn’t know about my book. He just said Google spit out my name. Strange huh?
Anyway, here are the daughter’s contenders:
- University of Maryland, full-tuition scholarship
- Carnegie Mellon University, $28,000-a-year scholarship
- Cornell University, Financial aid award not yet received.
The family expects to get their financial aid package from Cornell this week, but I suspect that the award will be similar to Carnegie Mellon’s. That’s because the research university in Pittsburgh based its award on an Expected Family Contribution of $32,000.
If you don’t understand what an EFC is, read this:
A family’s EFC will vary among some private institutions because each school’s financial aid methodology is going to be different. In contrast, most schools just use the federal financial aid methodology via the FAFSA which produces a solitary EFC figure.
With an EFC of $32,000, the teenage girl could expect to pay about $112,000 for Cornell over four years and this doesn’t take into account the annual price hikes. Carnegie Mellon should cost in the same ballpark. In contrast, the girl would only have to pay for yearly room/board at Maryland ($9,942), plus textbooks and miscellaneous expenses.
The father was agonizing about how he was going to pay for the extra cost of CMU or Cornell and he hoped that his daughter would attend the Honors College at the University of Maryland.
A tough college choice
Should this family do whatever it can to ensure that his daughter can attend Cornell? Is it worth it to go into hock for Carnegie Mellon? Or is the University of Maryland the sensible option?
Cornell vs. University of Florida
While you’re mulling that over, here is another story from a mom whose son got into the honors program at the University of Florida and, coincidentally, at Cornell. I originally heard from this mom last month when she was anticipating paying about $30,000 a year for a Cornell education, which she couldn’t afford. A complicating factor is that one of the teenager’s sibling suffers from a debilitating mental illness and the family faces the possibility of spending huge amounts of money on his care.
Here is part of the mom’s email:
Thinking logically, the path that makes sense would be to go to UF for undergrad, be top of his class and attempt an Ivy for graduate school. I get that, it makes sense. However, this child has yet to find peers at his academic level where he feels he fits in, even attending an IB high school program rated one of the best in the country. When I look at the criteria for even the honors college at UF it is simply a joke. (He can do that with his eyes closed, and I truly don’t mean that in an arrogant way)
…What makes it worse is that my college applicant is of the character that he will put his brother’s needs above his ambition and turn down the acceptance he so truly deserves so as not to add stress to our lives. I have seen him achieve despite living amidst the unimaginable chaos that comes with having a bipolar sibling. I have seen him continue to be his younger brother’s role model and support system, never holding a grudge or becoming resentful. It is killing me as a parent to not be able to support him financially with the dream he has worked so hard to achieve.
Here’s My Advice
My response to both parents is going to be the same.
1. Ask for more aid.
There is no reason why both families couldn’t appeal for more financial aid. The Florida mom, for instance, could share with Cornell the financial and health issues of her other son. The family might get a better aid package.
In the dad’s case, Carnegie Mellon happens to be known for its aggressive position regarding financial aid. The university isn’t shy about telling students that if they get better offers from another school, let them know. If the school wants the child badly enough, it might fatten the financial aid package.
Update: As it turns out, right before I was ready to publish this post this morning, the mom from Florida emailed me with great news. Cornell came through with more money than they anticipated for their son. They now face the prospects of paying just $5,000 more than the University of Florida. The teenager will be heading to Cornell in the fall.
“This is a miracle for us,” the mom wrote. “I am humbled and appreciative that my son is going to get this opportunity.”
It’s always great to hear success stories like that!
2. Don’t get hung up on brand names.
I don’t think parents – including the Maryland dad – should jeopardize their retirement and financial health to pay for schools with higher college rankings. It’s simply not worth it.
A landmark study has strongly suggested that smart students who were accepted into Ivy League universities but attended other schools do as well financially in their careers as Ivy graduates. Last year the respected researchers who conducted the original study, including a Princeton economist, released a second study that strongly suggested that even high-achieving students who were rejected by all Ivies still made the same higher salaries.
You can read a post that I wrote for my college blog over at CBS MoneyWatch about this research here:
What Do You Think?
What advise would you give the Maryland dad or other parents in similar circumstances? Please share any thoughts you have in the comment box below.
Read More on The College Solution:
Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of the second edition of The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price.
and is wondering if it would be worth it to