Is It Worth It?

“Is it worth it?”  The question was posed directly to me by one of my clients last Friday.  For the first time in my 22 years in higher education, I actually said “No.”  I almost couldn’t believe my own words, but at $59,000/year, or more than $240,000 (after the requisite tuition increases) over 4 years, I think we’ve finally reached the breaking point.  To be clear, I do not take this lightly.  I have graduated from 3 post secondary institutions and earned 2 advanced degrees.  I come from a long line of teachers and college educated family members.  I value education.  But the important point is that it’s not just I who believes this.  An increasing number of the families with whom I work are deciding – with their wallets and their feet – that this “price” won’t cut it anymore. 

I’m talking about top-notch students who’ve been admitted to some of the most prestigious schools in the country.   Three of my strongest seniors (35 ACT, 2300 SAT, 96 GPA, a half-dozen AP courses, and 12 years of hard work in school) this year have collectively been admitted to Boston College, The University of Pennsylvania, Notre Dame, Cornell, and Georgetown…and decided not to attend because they received scholarships from other “less prestigious” schools.  The difference in price amounts to about $20,000 per year ($30,000 per year in one case).  That’s between $80,000 and $120,000.  But the key point is that 3-4 years ago, these kids and many like them would have jumped at the chance to attend one of these elite colleges.  Parents would have re-mortgaged the house – quite literally – and students would have amassed $80,000 to $100,000 in debt, just for the privilege of studying at these schools…but no more.  Not for these kids. 

What surprised me in each of these instances was the ease with which the family made the decision.  After discovering they were admitted, they quickly eliminated each of these colleges from their list, with little discussion or weeping and gnashing of teeth.  But the real kicker:  Each of these families makes more than $200,000 per year and qualifies for no financial aid.  These are not poor families, nor are they wealthy. 

The implications of this anecdotal, but very real trend, are two-fold:  1.  These upper middle class families are being squeezed out of our most prestigious schools, and many others that are similarly priced.  You see, these families are slightly above the threshold of qualifying for aid, but they are unable to write a check for $240,000.  And those who do will be saddled with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt that stays with them for decades.  2.  The elite schools, and others with high sticker prices (and thus those who do not offer merit scholarship money), are becoming a land of the rich and the poor – with many more of the former to be sure.  For those colleges who preach the tenets of  “diversity,” this is bad news.  And for those hundreds of schools with slightly lesser prestige, but a high sticker price (and little or no merit scholarships), the news is even worse.  If students are forgoing elite schools because of price, what will happen when families realize the less prestigious brands are “not worth it” anymore?