Should You Blow the Budget for Cornell?

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:

Carnegie Mellon

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:

What Is Your Expected Family Contribution?

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

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.

Cornell University

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:

Why Ivy League Rejects Earn More Money

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:

Getting Stiffed by Harvard

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


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  1. Cornell will match the financial aid package for any Ivy, plus Duke, MIT, and Stanford. Harvard, Princeton, and Yale have a “no loans” policy and so any financial aid package comparison would put Cornell into a position of having to find that money from scholarships and grants rather than the loans and work study relied upon in their typical aid package. As to quality, the advantages of an Ivy are contacts and networks (most state universities offer strong in-state networks; Ivies have strong national and international networks as well), branding (I’ve seen colleagues swoon when the Ivy school of a new hire is announced and I work in economics), more attention to instructor quality (I was on faculty for 20 years at 3 different public research universities with mixed support for instructional excellence), research opportunities with top scientists (undergrad research opportunities at my previous employers were lower level projects), interaction with top students (with acceptance rates from 7% to 12%, there are fewer underachievers), attention to diversity (most Ivies do better than state universities at creating diverse student bodies). None of these advantages guarantee success to Ivy grads but they may be better prepared to grab opportunities that come along.

  2. not an expert … buy my experience says.. brand sells.. when it comes to ivey leagues.. they tend to produce thinkers, who view and solve problems very differently, and focused on building insights of environment they deal with..which in return helps them to discover and explore opportunities and hence producing leaders/business man..

    all other colleges are nice and well, but students may take 10 -15 to develop mindset, what ivey league students look from get go..

    Now, for employers recruiting from ivey league is… they are higher probability of getting smart person then all other schools..

    Now, it’s parent’s and counselors job to follow your child’s trait.. is he or she can take massive information quickly, are they scanning their environment quickly for new information, are they expert in starting debate on topics in engineering, arts or business.. more importantly can they take on massive information and manipulate them to provide insightful solutions, or create something…

    all this can be observed by looking for excitement in their eyes which is created by endless opportunities they see and are capable of transforming any kind of education into anything

  3. Need some guidance. Our son is getting a Banneker Key Full Ride Scholarship from UMD, full tuition from University of Miami and a good scholarship from Tulane. He has also been accepted at WASH U, Rochester and USC. He is interested in engineering or medicine. We live in MD. Would appreciate any guidance. Thank you.

  4. I’m in a situation where my daughter has received the Banneker Key Full Ride scholarship to University of Maryland and she has been accepted to Cornell (where i am an alum). She will likely not receive ANY financial aid- because my family’s combined income is over $250k gross.So i am very, very ambivalent. I would love for her to attend my ala mater. Not just becayuse of the quality of the education but because of all of the relationships and built in connections she will have. But at $50k a year, it will not be easy financially. Should she consider attending University of MD for two years in the Honors College and then transfer to Cornell (if she still wants the Ivy experience and education). Does that seem like a reasonable compromise?

    1. What did you do Regina? I’m in a similar situation and still waffling in June. Both colleges know of other to be fair and are giving us time. Please advise.

    2. We are in a similar situation, daughter has full scholarship at Univ of Maryland (UMBC – #1 up and coming school, US News), honors college for STEM (chem Eng, Chemistry or Physics). Also accepted at Princeton and Cornell but only given $13,000 scholarship, leaving us with over $40,000 a year to pay. As much as she is not excited about U Maryland, we see no other option as we can not pay $40K without bankrupting ourselves, and is it worth that? She’s waiting on Yale and Stanford but I imagine the aid will be minimal based on our income, leaving us with over $40K burden. She’s worked so hard that we feel bad that she might miss out on the ivy league experience, but my pocket book screams out that doing it would be financial suicide. What to do? I’m curious what your final decision was. Thanks.

  5. I absolutely think students shouldn’t be blinded by a “name brand” but it’s not something you should shy away from either. I doubt a third-tier private is going to make a pledge like this:

    Cornell’s financial aid

    Income over $120,000

    “Annual loans in financial aid packages for students with demonstrated need whose family incomes exceed $120,000 will continue to be capped at $7,500, or $30,000 for a typical four-year Cornell education.”

    If you are like half the country and make half that it’s an even better deal:

    “Students from families with total incomes of less than $60,000 will have no need-based loan requirements and no required parent contribution if the family has assets of less than $100,000.”

    Aim as high as possible to the best possible school that best matches your interests and personality.

  6. Unfortunatelly, I didn’t come across this blog sooner .. I’ve been looking for the answer to this question for some time now .. and I’m still brewing, not knowing whether we’ve made the right decision. We were deciding between Stony Brook Engineering Honor Program and Cornell Engineering. So let me make some points: we got $0 financial aid from Cornell. We have two decent salaries and the only equity we got, is in the house. We don’t have 529, or large savings. We’re still paying loans for our older son’s college and the mortgage. Having said that, the decision to pick Cornell, is already sounds silly to me, if I had to read it as someone else’s. Stony Brook gave us a Presidential scholarship and my son would graduate with no debts at all. In opposed to that, we picked Cornell, where we would need to take Parent’s Plus Loan in amount of $200,000 and considering the job market today and our age (we’re in our early 50th), god knows whether we would be able to keep our employment for many more years. In addition to our loans, our kid would graduate with his own loans (to the max amount allowed for the students).That’s the sad money part of the story. On the other hand, isn’t getting into Ivy League school the dream of every child and his parents. Isn’t that what we all are striving to achieve?

    1. I am a sophomore at a well known private high school. I’m taking all the hard classes and have created a plan for the next three years of high school to eventually achieve my dreams of Cornell.
      Not only are we on financial aid at my high school, who’s tuition is only 9,000. But I’m not exactly well endowed in the college fund area.
      I’m terrified that I will spend all of this dedicated time working and suffering through these terribly rigorous courses and be accepted to Cornell, only to find that the financial aid is not flexible enough for me.
      I’m hoping for at least 12,000 or below.
      I’m aware that this price is a longshot, and probably at their lowest financial aid limit.
      But I am blessed with a motivated mind, and hope to maybe achieve a scholarship.
      I’m sure I will have to pay for a dorm room with a part time job.
      But I also have heard, and know from an experience of attending private school my whole life, that they get every bit of your money they can get.

      In addition, I was wondering if anyone thinks I have an actual chance at getting in.
      I have attended Catholic school my whole life: a blue ribbon primary school, and a blue ribbon high school as of today. I take honors and AP classes and consistently remain within a 3.6 to 3.9 GPA. I am a hard worker and will usually stop at nothing to get what I want.
      This is my dream. It’s this or a state college. I want it so bad.
      This probably sounds so cheesy, but it’s very real for me. I’v had my sights set on being an equine vet since kindergarten.
      I’m going to put everything I’ve got into it.

      1. Hi Mallory,

        I am puzzled why you are only aiming for Cornell. There are countless schools where you could attend as an undergraduate that would prepare you to then go on to vet school. Throw a wider net in your search. I would look at a lot of liberal arts colleges, which I argue would provide you are better undergrad education than Cornell or many other universities. The chances of getting into Cornell is remote as it is for most students.

        Whether you get financial aid or not will depend largely on your Expected Family Contribution. Also you should have your parents complete the net price calculator for each school which will give you a personalized estimate of what any school will actually cost you.

        Good luck.

        Lynn O’Shaughnessy

      2. The only vet program that counts is the graduate one! Please don’t pick your vet-bound undergraduate this way! Just find a school with a really solid science program and get all As!

  7. I think one of the things driving this frenzy about reputations and this “academic arms race” is that people have lost their faith that the American Dream is possible (partially driven by the lack of entry level jobs and the bad economy) — lack of faith that people can get jobs and create opportunities of their own volution and through their own smarts and hard work. We’ve become more like what our forefathers left behind — a people more concerned with pedigree, fame, and connections than hard work. We’ve replaced the landed gentry and the various royal titles/vocations where certain families had a lock-hold on wealth and access to opportunity in the old country with connecting ourselves to the elite through lofty higher education institutions instead. This is fueling the attitude that name brand is the be-all and the end-all. It sickens me, because our college system is being gamed to death (between ridiculous, questionable rankings and false claims of furthering diversity), and all it is doing is further driving a wedge between the have and have-nots. The Ivies are full of rich, connected kids who can pay the full ride, are legacies, are celebrities or have a “hook,” a few token poor kids who get a full ride, and what my high school daughter’s friends have started to refer to as “fake diversity” — there are virtually no smart, middle class kids of any race there (unless they happened to be state-level athletes, thus having a “hook”) and very few people of true, full African American heritage (most seem to from wealthy, politically connected families from African or Caribbean nations). If what people are interested in is truly getting a good education, there are hundreds of colleges to chose from, and so many that can deliver a great experience to eager young minds and with true diversity (which UMD does, by the way). If someone is determined to learn and succeed, s/he can do it at UMD as well as at Cornell; but my fear is that the truth is that people aren’t so much interested in the life of the mind as they are in getting exposure to the rich and famous and hoping that they can hang on to their coattails up the ladder of success. My Ivy League friends at work tell me that that is actually a myth — that it’s not like you arrive at an Ivy and are instantly offered a partnership in some rich family’s legacy company. Largely, those people keep it all in the family, and gaining a key to those gates if you’re an outsider is still pretty unlikely, whether or not you’re rooming with one of those connected types. It happens on occasion, but not as often as you would think. So the Harvard guy I work with spent five times as much on his education as the UMD woman, and they are working side-by-side and equally well-prepared for their jobs.

  8. I am involved in recruiting for a very selective agency. Our jobs require very high level skills, including a minimum of a master’s degree. Most people I work with are brilliant. They get their jobs here by passing a rigorous entrance test on knowledge of foreign affairs, foreign language aptitude, writing samples, oral exam (to help determine presentation skills), quantitative skills, and a psychological battery. We purposely recruit from a very wide variety of schools from across the country, to include small, exclusive liberal arts schools; less selective small schools; large state universities; historically black colleges; work colleges; women’s colleges; some Ivy Leagues;, some Public Ivies; etc. We have people from famous and not-so-famous colleges. We have smart people from every type of college you can imagine — people from Middle Tennessee State working alongside people from Harvard. And guess what? They’re all doing the same work with great enthusiasm, smarts, and capability. It matters not at all where they got their degrees but rather what they did with their time in the colleges they did attend. It matters what kind of person they are, how persistent they are, how hard they work, how creative they are, and how they present themselves. Sometimes recruits from the big state schools have the greatest persistence and deal the best with bureaucratic issues, because to survive and thrive in their schools, they developed that set of skills. Many of the folks from small liberal arts colleges of any level of selectivity are our most creative and insightful employees. We don’t want all of our employees to be from one social background, one socio-economic strata, or one racial background. We need and thrive on diversity — it is absolutely essential to our agency’s success and to our country’s success. Most companies recongnize this, and thus do not only recruit from name brand institutions. Sometimes the poor kid who had to pay his way through Chico State has the most pluck and is the most driven. These types of employees are sometimes the most successful of all, because they are used to working hard from the get-go and did not come by anything in life through their dad’s connections. They have no sense of entitlement, so are willing to get their hands dirty for the mission. There are so many successful people in my workplace and similar ones who did not go to “name brand U.” In fact, I work with a number of highly successful University of Maryland graduates, some of whom did just what Ms. O’Shaughnessy is claming here is true — turned down more prestigious private schools to attend UMD’s honors program because the price was right. They claim to have had small, intimate classes with exceptional peers and fantastic professors. In my opinion, these parents will be making a very silly mistake to mortgage their future to send their child to a name-brand college for undergraduate studies. If anything, save that for the graduate level, when there are fewer credit hours to carry and at a level where the reputation is more important. As an undergraduate, students at Cornell are in huge, impersonal lecture classes with a lot of teaching assistants…why kill yourself to pay for that? Go to UMD undergrad and then focus on the ivies for grad school, if you still care at that point. In the meantime, just look around you and count up the number of successful, happy people you know who went to all manner of non-famous colleges or none at all — your friends, family, and neighbors, as well as some famous folks (Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet, Harry S. Truman, Ronald Reagan, the Wright Brothers, Albert Einstein, and Michael Dell to name a few…)

  9. First, let me say that every ones situation is different and colleges look at each student through different lenses. With that being said, it’s seems to be the same story everytime I talk to a parent with college students. Very rarely do these parents seek out enough scholarship opportutnities for their kids to pursue. It’s a very unfortunate situation.

    My son was courted by Johns Hopkins and Carnegie Mellon, not Cornell which was one of his choices. He ended up going to Johns Hopkins with great scholarships but still had to fill a $15,000 gap. I decided his senior year in high school that I would research and pursue all the scholarships he would need to fill this gap. Not only did he fill the gap, but was left with scholarships he refused for others who could use them. He’s very fortunate to be in the situation he’s in. My point is that there are so many families that are leaving money on the table and not pursuing the billions of dollars that are out there for students.

    Let me say this, these students that get accepted to these top colleges and universities have such a tremendous opportunity to win and collect so many scholarship dollars. These schools don’t accept the average student which is why they’re perfect candidates for academic scholarships and need based depending on the financial curcumstances.

    The bottom line is that college tuition for the average family is insane and families have to become smarter with college decisions and parents have to prepare their kids to compete for scholarship dollars to make it more affordable.

  10. I am so happy to hear stories like the family from Florida where everything worked out so well. Our son had to pass on Rice and UVA as he didn’t get enough aid. His EFC was $9000 and we got $17,000 from Rice and nothing from UVA. He has free tuition from University of Georgia (Ramsey scholar) and free tuition and room and board from Auburn University in Alabama so he is going to one of those. We have two younger children to put through school and have to be able to handle their tuition when the time comes. It’s hard to say no to RIce and UVA though!

    1. Heidi,

      What you shared about your son’s Rice package doesn’t make any sense. If your EFC was $9,000 you should have gotten a huge financial aid package from Rice. Rice meets 100% of its students’ financial aid. I would contact Rice’s financial aid office and find out what happened. There must be some mistake based on what you told me.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy