Stop Fixating on These Colleges!


A lot of the parents attending my current online class on how to cut the cost of college are affluent and highly educated.

Quite a few of these moms and dads attending my course have indicated to me that they would like to see their children attend elite schools.

Not surprisingly, these parents have expressed concern about the cost of these highly prestigious schools. What many of these institutions are charging for a bachelor’s degree EXCEEDS a quarter-million dollars for those who don’t qualify for need-based financial aid. And for parents with two or more children, the costs are beyond staggering – even for those with comfortable six-figure incomes.

One of the things these parents are learning is this:  the schools with the very shiniest brand names don’t University-Rankinghave to bother giving merit scholarships to highly accomplished students from high-income families. Why?  Because there are plenty of wealthy parents who will pay ANY amount to get their children into one of U.S. News & World Report’s darlings. A school like Harvard or Stanford could charge $1 million or $2 million for a bachelor’s degree and they’d still reject many teenagers.

Once this reality sinks in, these parents sometimes begin wondering if they should plunder their retirements accounts and/or take on debt to underwrite a degree at one of these elite schools that seem (notice the emphasis on seem) to have a monopoly on dispensing golden tickets.

Yale vs. Northeastern University

I got an email last week from a mom struggling with this very issue. Her son got into Yale with barely any financial aid andNortheastern_University_1 also got a full-tuition scholarship to Northeastern University.  The parents, who are in their 60s, would have to borrow six-figures to make Yale  financially possible.

To me this is an absolute no-brainer decision. Here was my advice, “Go to Northeastern!!!!”

This case also illustrates something else that’s common – a high-income teenager who gets nothing from an Ivy League school can routinely snag big, fat merit scholarships from countless other schools.

I’ve heard from so many moms and dads focused on underwriting an elite-school education through my course, in my talks and through my blog, that I felt compelled to write a post pointing out some key things these parents need to know.

You don’t have to go to an elite school to succeed!

This seems incredibly obvious to me, but it isn’t to many parents in wealthy communities that seem to view 13527586992j82fgetting into prestigious colleges as some kind of trophy sport. For some parents, it becomes an obsession while their kids are still in diapers.

A Princeton admission rep once told someone I know that parents with preschoolers ask her what private schools their children should attend to boost their ultimate chances of a Princeton admission. Wow!

Even if I was to concede (and I’m definitely not!) that all the best jobs in the entire country go exclusively to the graduates of the most highly ranked colleges and universities, that would leave about 99.5% of jobs left to the rest of us.

If you don’t believe me, take a few minutes some day and look at your LinkedIn contacts. I bet most, if not all, of 64VZAhLthe most successful contacts you have did not attend a trophy school!

I made the LinkedIn suggestion recently when I was giving a talk at a financial conference in Las Vegas that attracted some extremely successful, fee-only financial advisors from across the country. When someone asked about the elite school advantage (he assumed there was one), I reacted by instructing anyone who had attended an Ivy League school to raise his/her hand. No one in the room did.

There have been some excellent and highly touted studies on whether an Ivy League bachelor’s degree conveys a professional advantage for students. The main conclusion of these papers was this:  students who attend Ivy League institutions and equally bright students who apply but get rejected from Ivy League schools end up making the same amount of money in their careers. These are bright and motivated students, after all, who can succeed wherever they go to school.

There was an exception to the research finding.  Minority and first-generation students who don’t enjoy the same advantages as the students whom the Ivy League schools specialize in educating – wealthy students  – did gain an advantage from attending these schools.

This Should Make You Feel Better

What should make parents feel better is this conclusion from Alan Krueger, the famous Princeton economist and coauthor of the studies:

He pointed out that the average SAT score at the most selective college that students apply to is a better predictor of their future earnings than the average SAT score at the college they attended. Read that again and let that sink in!

Here are excellent summaries from The New York Times and the Brookings Institute on what the famous Ivy League studies uncovered:

Revisiting the Value of Elite Colleges

 Who Needs Harvard?

It’s What You Do in College That Counts!

A Gallup survey conducted with Purdue University last year provided further evidcaitlinence that people should really stop fixating on the elite schools.

The survey results indicated that the type of institution that college graduates attend matters less to their future happiness at home and work than the experiences they have at whatever college that they end up at. In fact, the survey concluded that whether respondents attended an elite school, a public flagship, a  private college or a regional state school didn’t matter at all.

I wrote the following blog post about this survey and used my daughter Caitlin (see photo), a Juniata College graduate, to illustrate how you can be incredibly successful at a college that most people have never heard of:

How My Daughter Made the Most Out of College

Striving for elite schools can cripple teenagers mentally

Finally, I’ve left the most important factor in the college-admission rat race for last. What mental-health price are teenagers paying who are aiming for these elite schools?

I had a mom in my class wonder last week if the burnout her daughter, a junior, is experiencing is normal. The girl is taking four AP classes and a honors class on top of all her extracurricular activities. The mom is worried how her daughter is going to do when she’ll face this crushing load while visiting colleges, applying to schools and taking her standardized tests.

I encounter this issue a lot when I talk at schools in high-income areas with ambitious parents. What I tell them is that their children do not have to be super human. There are many schools that would love high-achieving students whether they take four AP classes a semester or two or one and will reward them with merit scholarships.

I see a lot of panic at these schools where parents worry that other students are pulling ahead academically so they pile on more AP classes. At the high school where my husband attended, the premiere public school in Denver, some students are starting Calculus as freshmen to try to gain an edge. It’s nuts!

This academic escalation can have tragic consequences.

I’ll be giving a talk at Gunn High School in Palo Alto this spring (I’ve given several talks at Silicon Valley high schools) that has experienced eight student suicides in roughly the past five years. Here is a YouTube video from a girl who talked about a student suicide in November and there has been another suicide since then.

I would highly urge parents of teenagers attending these pressure-cooker high schools to read a wonderful book written by Madeline Levine entitled, The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids.

Here is a guest post from my blog recently that synthesizes Levine’s message that is definitely worth reading:

Why Affluent Teens Are Miserable

Bottom Line:

There are amazing colleges and universities in this country, many of which are under the radar, that offer excellent opportunities for their students.

It’s important to know that nationally around 75% of students get into their first-choice school. At most colleges and universities, it’s actually a buyer’s market not a seller’s market. Students have many, many choices if they are savvy enough to not just look at the same old two or three dozens schools that smart, high-income students tend to focus on.

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  1. “Where you go is not who you will be: An antidote to the college admission mania” by Frank Bruni provides series of testimonials for why one does not need to attend an Ivy school in order to succeed in life. His interviews with many successful high-achievers should help parents and students gain a better understandings of the pros and cons of Ivy schools. The message echoed by these individuals, without an exception, is how one’s commitment to continued learning and exploration matters. Commitment is the key ingredient to success in life regardless where you are. I highly recommend this book to parents, students, and everyone else who may have an influence on the next generation of students in America.

  2. Another way to make the same point: I attended Harvard in the 1970s, when it was still plenty difficult but still not quite impossible to get in. In a musing moment, one of my professors told me that he thought the Harvard undergraduate experience was highly overrated–he had just noticed how few of his colleagues had attended Harvard College. He himself was an alumnus of Maryville College in Tennessee, and had “nevertheless” become the most distinguished American scholar in his field! His observation is still relevant.

  3. Hi

    it is very refreshing article. Rather then commenting on this article, I would like to ask your opinions instead. My daughter is a regular teenager, she did not get any special tutoring on anything. Somehow, she got admitted at engineering school in MIT and other good universities. The dilemma that we have right now is that, she got a full scholarship for 4 years from Univ. of Maryland College Park (engineering school too) covering tuition, room, board, books, etc. We do not need to spend anything to attend the Univ. of Maryland. On the other hand, we need to spend about 35k to attend MIT. What is your opinion. Is it beneficial spending 35k for my daughter to attend MIT or she is better going to Univ. of Md free of charge? We might be able to cover 35k/year, but it would be very tight on our budget.

    1. So basically you could go to Maryland for free and spend $140,000 for MIT. I would go to Maryland!!!

      You should read my recent blog post that compares Georgetown and Maryland grads. I think this will help you make your decision.

      Also read this posts and the links it contains that are relevant!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  4. Yes, there are many amazing colleges out there, but even many of those will set you back a quarter million dollars out of pocket, not just the Ivies. I used to be convinced that my kids had to go to a top college or bust. This was from my experience working at Microsoft, where many of the employees elevated to top management positions were Ivy graduates, and in the high tech start up world where it seems that every other founder is a Stanford or Harvard grad. But I’ve come to realize that those are rarefied, selective bubbles. Read The Millionaire Next Door, and you’ll realize that most wealthy people in the U.S. are not top college graduates, just hard working small business owners who might have been C students. The problem is, if you hang around enough highly educated, affluent people, you get swept up in their maniacal focus on the Ivies and next tier after the Ivies. It’s an arms race, for sure! With two kids in high school now looking at colleges, I am feeling much better about looking for the best fit, at schools that are probably under the radar, but which won’t deplete my retirement savings or saddle my guys with outrageous loans. They will prosper regardless!

  5. In my adult life, I have watched this carefully. Successful people do not necessarily come from the bigger, more prestigious schools. There are two other points that are rarely talked about in the college discussions:

    1. Look for schools who have a special niche competency area in the area you want to study. You’ll be amazed at the work and employees coming from lesser name schools.

    2. It’s what you do during school that matters. I wasn’t a 4.0 student, I didn’t get my degree done in 4 years (it took 5), but I did every job imaginable to give myself more than just a degree. I showed, through work experience, that if someone hired me, they were getting more than just a college student, they were getting someone who’d come as close to actually doing the job as was possible. Not only that, but through my jobs, I was networking with professionals in my field.

    I took calls from employers all summer long. I had my pick of which job I wanted. First year our of school I had my first job in my field.

    School I attended: Western Michigan University

    1. Hi Nikki,

      Thanks for sharing your experience. You are a great example of what I am talking about.

      I started out myself at a school that the ranking gods ignore – the University of Missouri, St. Louis, which is a commuter school. I threw myself into getting involved at this school and because of that I discovered that I loved journalism. I volunteered to work at both school newspapers. An adjunct professor told me he thought I had a career in journalism (I had never thought of this as a career) and told me to strongly consider attending journalism school. I transferred as a junior to Mizzou, which has the oldest and one of the most high respected journalism schools in the country. I am just as grateful to UMSL as I am to Mizzou!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  6. This is a great article. It touches on so many of the downsides of privilege and the pressures to always outperform and outshine that result in alot of unnecessary pain and sadly as the video pointed out – tragic deaths. As a single Mom, I’ve had years of slim means only to build a career and enter a more affluent circle with more opportunities and indeed way more pressure. It has created stress for myself as a parent and for my son. And, yet time and time again, I hear about the better performance, effort, and motivation of less privileged kids. It’s sad to watch many wealthier kids put in less effort and pay little consequence. It’s also hard to find a realistic gauge as a parent for where to push and where to ease up. I learned a lot from the college application process. I pushed pretty hard to make up for a very talented kid with high SAT’s, many awards for writing, and a B average. I’m not sure I sent the correct message to my son. Thankfully, we are still in the selection process so articles like this will help me in feeling less concerned about prestige and more focused on making the most of college. I’m also going to share your article about your daughter with my daughter who is entering her Junior year. I think it will provide some encouragement to diversify her activities and take advantage of the resources around her. Thanks for being a voice of reason in all of this college madness!

  7. Hi Lynn,
    I very much enjoyed your post.
    When my oldest was a high school senior last year, we discovered that THE KIDS also have a college “pecking order” as well, and that kids would make comments about other kids’ applications, denials, or acceptances based on the “pecking order”, sometimes to their faces, sometimes behind their backs. So my daughter (#3 in a public school class of 400+), decided not to tell anyone where she applied, nor where she was accepted. I was shocked to hear it was this bad. Some of my sources tell me that boys do not seem to face quite the social pressures, though since I don’t have a son, I don’t know.

    Obviously, this pressure does come from the parents at some level, but also I suspect from USN&WR’s yearly rankings.

    It’s a fascinating sociological phenomenon driven by the financial insecurity of our times: that if we somehow give our kids that “edge”, perhaps we will spare them from the financial insecurity that we have endured—-ironically, by taking on debt or stretching out budgets so thin that we feel more financial insecurity!
    It’d be funny, if it wasn’t so scary and so true! Thanks, and best to you, Lynn, for doing so much to try to change people’s perceptions!

    1. Thanks Karen for your kind words. I greatly appreciate them!

      Parents are a big cause of the problem and U.S. News is even more culpable. Good for your daughter for not buying into this madness.

      If you don’t mind sharing, I’m curious where your daughter ended up going to school.


      Lynn O.

    1. Hi Corrine,

      Where Krueger teaches is really irrelevant to the story. This economist is famous far beyond where he happens to teach – though I doubt he does much, if any, teachng. Thanks for reading the article.

      Lynn O.

  8. Agreed. I graduated from Georgetown University a few years ago, and I wanted to share my perspective here; I know that parents and students rarely are able to get the alumni perspective on the various factors that go into choosing a college, so I hope I can be of some assistance. First of all, debt is a very, very big deal. Many people have dream careers that are quite difficult to obtain. Actually, this is putting it mildly – see for instance (getting a paid foreign policy job “makes getting into Harvard look easy”). Trying to manage the multiple unpaid internships and many years of dues-paying that are necessary to establish yourself in one of these fields (I’m thinking things like media and entertainment in LA/NY, politics/national journalism in DC or NY, fashion, high level creative advertising, etc.) is difficult for someone with a trust fund; if you’re trying to do it with five (or I hope to God not six!) figures of student debt, you’re going to have a rough go of it. No school is worth six figures of debt. A choice between six figures of debt and no debt is no choice at all.

    Second, success can be defined in many different ways, of course, but the biggest difference I have found between my “successful” and “less successful” classmates (and yes, GU has plenty of fairly “unsuccessful” alums) is the individual student’s level of drive and initiative, followed probably – and unfortunately – by how well connected the student/student’s family is. One of the biggest ironies of the prestige chase is that those who worry most about it – parents from high-income communities like Palo Alto or Greenwich or Bethesda – have absolutely no need to be concerned about it, because it is likely they can call many tens of successful family friends to assist their kids with networking for good jobs. It’s an unfortunate fact that the wealthy and well-connected just have a huge systemic advantage in the job market, especially for “high-end” positions in desirable cities like San Francisco; you can’t, however, do anything about this. The elite school connections are for more valuable for the poorer student – and given financial aid policies at schools like GU, genuinely lower income students are likely to receive significant aid, mostly in the form of grants. I know that GU was incredibly generous to me, for instance, and met my entire estimated need with scholarship aid, a fact which I am quite grateful for.

    Third, whether the school name matters depends on what you want to do, but generally it isn’t terribly important with the exception of a few industries, notably finance and consulting. You really will have a much better chance of getting that job at McKinsey or Bain Consulting, or Goldman Sachs on the finance side, if you go to Yale rather than Northeastern, but I’m not sure how much that benefit is really worth; many people at these places are in fact quite miserable. It’s not uncommon for 20 and 30-somethings to burn out of these “high status” jobs, as they realize that there’s more to life than accumulating an endless amount of gold stars. And for admission to top graduate programs or top law schools, it’s really more about 1) college academic performance and extracurricular involvement; and 2) standardized test scores. Law school in particular basically only cares about your grades and LSAT scores, so don’t waste the money on the expensive college if this is your aim.

    Note that that’s not to suggest that where you go doesn’t matter AT ALL, but rather that if you’re choosing between two schools, both of which are selective and interesting places to go to college, it’s unlikely the difference will matter much. For instance, one of the most common jobs for GU grads is Deloitte Federal Consulting – I also happen to know many U Maryland grads with the same exact job. The big difference tends to be not between the Ivy League and the slightly less selective school, but rather the selective school versus the unselective school. For instance, grads of online schools or schools with open admissions policies will have a harder time getting good jobs, because many companies will not recruit there. It’s unlikely most of the readers of this site are considering online schools, I would think. However, when we’re talking about two great schools – and I would consider both U Maryland and Georgetown great schools, for example – the difference that US News pretends exists does not actually really exist.

    One last point:
    -There unfortunately really are people – not many, but some – who will look down on you for not going to Harvard or Stanford. Actually, many of these types of people don’t even think Georgetown is good enough. These people are generally obnoxious and not worth your time.

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts about the admission mania enveloping elite schools. You are very right that the views of alumni, and particularly recent grads, of their experiences are rarely solicited. And it’s absolutely true that the wealthy families who tend to be the most worried about getting their kids into Stanford or Princeton or Georgetown have the very least to worry about.

      I’m going to run your comment as a blog post so more people will see it. Thanks!

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy