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Elite Admission: What Is College Worth?

Brennan Barnard
This spring, the country has watched, aghast and astounded, as celebrities, business leaders and other wealthy parents have been charged with scheming to fraudulently secure college acceptances for their children at some of our nation’s most selective institutions. Who knew the lengths that some will go in pursuit of admission, status and the perceived guarantee of success? It also raises an interesting question: Just how much is an elite acceptance worth and how far would you go to attain one for your child? Would you assume 10, 20, 50 or 100 thousand dollars in debt? Would you work three jobs to help your child receive the best education possible? Would you write their college essay? Would you pay off a coach, admission officer or another university official if they could guarantee an acceptance? Would you help your child cheat on standardized testing, or might you look the other way if you knew they had plagiarized or cheated in school? What if your child could be admitted if you agreed to pay the tuition for two less fortunate students? Would you donate a kidney if we opened up a national “organ for college” exchange?
 
Okay, the last one is a stretch, but not the others—all real examples of parental love gone astray. And the perennial question remains: Is it worth it? Will admission to an elite college make a difference? What is in a name? Does acceptance rate actually correlate with success, and whose definition of success are we using anyway?

Last October, the executive recruitment firm Kittleman, researched the educational backgrounds of leaders of all Fortune 500 companies to determine the “origin stories of prosperous and successful CEOs.” You get one guess for which undergraduate institution has produced the highest number of executives on this list. If your guess was a member of the Ivy League, you are wrong (though some of those institutions were well represented). The University of Wisconsin came out on top, having graduated 14 Fortune 500 CEOs. This public university accepts more than half of all applicants and for in-state students has an annual Cost of Attendance of $26,443.52. Still ready to swap a kidney for your child’s admission to an elite institution?
What if we look beyond name and focus primarily on price. Money Crashers is a personal finance website and online community with over 3 million visitors each month. Their mission is to “address the void in the financial education system” by providing educational material to help people make sound financial decisions. This week they released a report entitled  “Admissions Scandal Revisited: Is the Ivy League Worth the Price?” In short, their answer—like so much in college admission—is “it depends.”
 
In providing context for their exploration, the authors write,
Admission to elite universities has become increasingly competitive. Each year, Ivy League schools and other top colleges advertise their low acceptance rate as a badge of honor. In 2019, Harvard and Columbia accepted a record low number of applicants. This exclusivity creates a vicious cycle; the more selective schools are, the more students and parents want in. Some families will do just about anything, including breaking the law, to help their children gain admission to Ivy League schools. There are plenty of legal ways wealthy families try to gain an advantage as well, including alumni donations, campus visits, and investing in college consultants and SAT tutors. The frenzy has become an ingrained part of American culture."
Accordingly, they wondered if an undergraduate degree from an Ivy League school was worth the cost. After analyzing compensation research from PayScale and data on college costs from College Tuition Compare, here is what they found:
  • "Ivy League alumni earn approximately $1.6 million more throughout their careers than graduates of private and public colleges."
  • "Public college education generates the best relative return on investment, while an Ivy League degree yields the strongest absolute return."
  • "Ivy League schools cost 198% more than in-state public colleges. If a person invested the difference between these costs in the stock market at age 18, the money would likely grow to approximately $22.9 million by the time they turned 67."
  • "Under a standard 10-year student loan repayment plan, public college graduates are left with approximately $900 more in monthly take-home pay than alumni from Ivy League schools and private colleges."
  • "Ivy League grads are likely to need more years to pay off their student loans. If they allocated 20% of their annual pre-tax salary toward loan payments, it would take them 33 years to get out of debt. By comparison, it would only take public college grads 13 years."      
The Money Crashers team dive deeper into many of the factors that impact the relative value of an Ivy League education for students from different backgrounds. They also offer helpful context for the report’s findings and predictions, explaining:
"An Ivy League education can be a good option for students from lower-income families who qualify for financial aid; the opportunity could change the trajectory of their lives...It can also benefit affluent families who can pay full tuition. For them, the prestige and connections may outweigh the high cost. Any Ivy League degree can also benefit affluent families who can pay full tuition. For them, the prestige and connections may outweigh the high cost. However, a high achieving student from a well-off family who earns admission into an elite institution would likely be successful because of their inherant advantages, regardless of where they go to school...For others, public university may be a better option. Students from middle-class families who don’t qualify for aid but who also can’t pay out of pocket may want to think twice before accepting an Ivy League offer letter. Our analysis suggests these students face an uphill battle when it comes to paying back their student loans. Compared with graduates of public universities and even private colleges, they must allocate a much higher percentage of their income toward monthly repayments."
Buying one’s children a college acceptance or pressuring them throughout adolescence to overachieve in the name of admission “success” is not worth one’s kidney or integrity. Great opportunity exists and it cannot be reduced to assumptions about one “right” path for everyone. Do Ivy League institutions, and other highly selective colleges and universities, provide an exceptional educational experience? Undoubtedly for many students, but not exclusively. Whether one has aspirations of becoming a CEO of a Fortune 500 company or finding a secure financial future doing something they love, the take-home message is this—rankings, status, and acceptance rates do not tell the whole story. Do your homework, stay open to all the possibilities, and help your student make a wise investment in their future.

Brennan Barnard
Director of College Counseling & Outreach, The Derryfield School
College Admission Program Manager, Harvard Graduate School of Education's Making Caring Common Project
for www.forbes.com
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The Derryfield School

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