An Ivy League Education: Is It Worth It?

You are in your senior year of high school. With your parents, you have been looking at colleges. The school counselor has suggested that you consider an Ivy League university like Harvard, Yale, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Princeton or the University of Pennsylvania. The counselor believes that, based on your academic achievements, you could become a successful candidate for one of these prestigious schools.

Your parents are flattered that you are being directed towards the Ivy League. They want what is best for you and are aware that these universities are reputed for the overall quality of their educational experiences and employment opportunities.

These are important considerations. However, cost is another major factor in the decision to attend an Ivy League college. The question arises, "Is an Ivy League education worth it?"

The financial aspect of attending an Ivy League college may be the biggest stumbling block. The price tag of an Ivy League education may run over $40,000 a year. By comparison, the public college in a student's home state may cost $10,000 a year or less.

Students and their families who can't afford the Ivy League tuition up front will have to seek scholarships and grants, and get loans to supplement any financial aid that they may require. But there is some good news: Ivy League schools are creating new programs to lessen the financial hit of their tuition for talented students from less wealthy families. Harvard and Stanford are beginning to offer competitive financial aid packages that may rival some public universities.

Harvard made a sweeping announcement in December 2007: "No Loans: In calculating the financial aid packages offered to undergraduates, Harvard will not expect students to take out loans. Loan funds will be replaced by increased grants from the university. Of course, students will be permitted to cover their reduced cost of attendance through loans if they wish."

In the announcement, Harvard president Drew Faust says, "We want all students who might dream of a Harvard education to know that it is a realistic and affordable option. Education is fundamental to the future of individuals and the nation, and we are determined to do our part to restore its place as an engine of opportunity, rather than a source of financial stress. With no loans, no consideration of home equity, and a dramatic increase in grant aid, we are not tinkering at the margins, we are rebuilding the engine. This is a huge investment for Harvard, but there is no more important commitment we could make. Excellence and opportunity must go hand in hand."

A Stanford report from February 2008 states, "Stanford University today announced the largest increase in its history for its financial aid program for undergraduates ... The program also eliminates the need for student loans ... These changes bring Stanford's undergraduate financial aid program for the 2008-09 year to more than $114 million, making it one of the largest programs in the nation."

The high cost of Ivy League tuitions is often seen as justified based on the quality of the education that these schools provide. Ivy League universities have well-established reputations for standards of excellence in academia.

In her article, Is an Ivy League Degree Worth It?, D. Lynn Byrne writes, "Ivy League institutions have always been highly selective and very competitive in terms of admission processes. Scuttlebutt has it that 'you must be really smart' if you're selected for admissions at an Ivy League. Research, however, doesn't support the theory that an Ivy League education is better than an education obtained at a less 'prestigious' institution."

Donald Asher, a U.S.-based writer specializing in higher education and author of the article, Is the Ivy League "Worth It"?, argues that many Ivy League schools excel primarily as graduate schools. He cites a recent national report that pointed out one Ivy League school where only 40 percent of undergraduate classes were taught by tenure-track faculty. The majority of classes were taught by a much less prestigious group of instructors, graduate students and adjuncts.

Asher quotes Alton O. Roberts, an Ivy League graduate, retired professor and principal investigator for a national study of undergraduate education, saying that, "The [undergraduate's money] at these schools ... doesn't go toward the undergraduate budget. A student will face large classes, and teaching assistants instead of professors. The Ivy League degree is a brand, and there is the presumption of intelligence, the presumption of competence, but the undergraduate is not the important person at these schools."

In terms of actual education, Asher finds that many metrics suggest that Ivy League schools don't necessarily have the upper hand. For example, the Faculty Scholarly Productivity Index, a widely recognized ranking system, has the Ivy League showing up with some number-one rankings in terms of academic departments, but so do non-Ivy League colleges like Penn State (anthropology), Indiana University (French), New York University (mathematics) and Washington University in St. Louis (political science).

Besides the perceived higher quality of education, the other justification for the cost of an Ivy League education is that it virtually guarantees good employment after graduation. Many people believe that if you have an Ivy League degree, you will find yourself effortlessly overwhelmed with job offers from major companies around the world. This is not always the case. Some employers may seek the Ivy League stamp of approval. Others may focus almost exclusively on workplace technical and social skills regardless of alma mater.

There are at least two schools of thought on the employment benefits of an Ivy League degree. Some point out the prestige, skills and connections that often come with an Ivy League education. Others suggest that most benefits are profession-specific, and can usually be acquired at other schools too.

Bernard Sundstedt, director of alumni and development at Rockford College in Illinois and graduate of Yale Drama School, says, "As far as my degree helping me obtain employment goes, I will approach this from a few perspectives. I do think that it enhanced my application to work at Rockford College as a director of grants, which has led to 13 years of employment at a college that means a lot to me and my wife. [My] first boss here at the college saw it as an endorsement of quality and constantly [brought] it up to alumni and donors. My years of work in the theater, reinforced by learned skills at Yale, have taught me how to approach projects and tasks in alumni and development work with strong methodologies and pluck."

Sundstedt says, "Finally, I can't help but think as I enter my retirement years, that my association with Yale will help me as I seek employment as an actor in Chicago and the coasts. I have maintained relationships with many former colleagues and have attempted to keep my 'chops' as it were, so that the transition could be as seamless as possible. It is amazing the number of my friends and acquaintances that I see on a weekly basis on television or the big screen or read about in New York. I can only assume that my connection with those individuals will continue to serve me well in the future."

Michael Martin, senior project manager at ThoughtWorks, an information technology consulting company in Chicago, has a slightly different point of view. "I don't see any disadvantage in having a degree from any accredited college," he says. "At Thoughtworks, we don't necessarily look for potential employees with Ivy League degrees. When looking at a particular career, keep your eye on what those employers are looking for in a potential employee. Some professions may have cliques, and you will want to be aware of it. If you are pursuing a financial degree or a law degree, an Ivy League degree may be highly valued, but there are successful people in both of those fields without an Ivy League degree."

In addition, Asher makes the point that bright students will usually do well in life simply because they're bright and motivated, not because they attended an Ivy League college. In other words, the "value-added" aspect of these schools may not be worth the financial cost for precisely those students who are bright and motivated enough to be accepted into them. There may even be some negatives for talented students, in the form of intense competition from classrooms full of equally brilliant students, and reduced contact and personal recommendations from distant faculty.

Potential students considering an Ivy League university should weigh very carefully the issues of finances, employment prospects after graduation, and overall quality of the educational experience. Depending upon your chosen field of study, an Ivy League degree may be worthwhile, or a public university may be your best choice. Martin says, "It's fine to get an Ivy League degree, but you make your own opportunities regardless of where you obtain your degree."