Are Top Schools Worth the Hype? [Guest Post]

by Robin Levinson

Each spring, millions of high school seniors wait with baited breath for their college acceptance letters to arrive. And each spring, twice as many parents have already passed out from lack of oxygen. But is this college anxiety really worth it?

It used to be that having one’s child get into an Ivy League college was the gold-medal of parenting. But, as college admissions get more and more competitive, “second-tier” schools are gaining popularity as students (and their parents) search for the next Big Name. Buzzwords like “small classes” “liberal-arts education” and “teacher attention” are used to lure parental dollars like honey catches bees.

Unfortunately, “small school in the Northeast” doesn’t always translate into a good education. Five years ago, my high school English teacher advised us to “find the school that’s right for you.” Somehow, this advice translated into everyone in my high school class applying to Wesleyan, Tufts, and Boston College. A number of those students subsequently transferred, because even at a school of 1,200 students, they felt lost. Others graduated feeling they’d had zero teacher attention and no practical work skills, despite going to a “top” school. I even have a friend who recently graduated from an Ivy, and has been unemployed for over six months (I blame the economy).

The point is that there is no guarantee. It’s hard to put a price-tag on education—or at least it’s hard for parents to decide the value of their child’s education. Is $40,000 a year reasonable? Absolutely, if it will improve your child’s quality of life. But there’s no promise that $160-thousand dollars over four years is actually buying your child a better future.

One way to measure the value of a college education is by looking at average starting salaries. According to, both state schools and liberal-arts school have average starting salaries of $45,000. Texas A&M has an average starting salary of $49,700 and an in-state tuition of $7,844/year. Compare that to Boston College, where the average starting salary is $48,100 and the tuition costs $37,950/year. If you think of education as an investment, it becomes pretty clear which college pays off sooner.

Of course there’s more value to a college degree than just dollars and cents. Being in an environment where what your love to study is encouraged and your intellect is challenged is one of the most rewarding experiences in a person’s life. Encourage your children to search for college programs that might not be on everybody’s radar. For example, state schools frequently have the best research in the country. If your son or daughter is interested in sciences, a small school might not provide the lab facilities they need to truly be on the cutting edge. State schools also have large alumni networks, a key advantage when looking for a job.

But maybe this is just more honey to catch the bees. Buzzwords like “alumni networks” and “first-class research” won’t really tell you if a college is right for your child, any more than “small classes” and “teacher attention” do. Whether it’s the local state school or a little liberal-arts college in New England, the most important thing is to find colleges that fit your child’s personality. If they love the place, and they love what they study, they’ll graduate with a passion that will help propel them towards success. Everything else is just hype.

Robin Levinson is Content Editor for CampusCompare, a website that helps college-bound students find the right school for them by offering free college search tools, a nifty financial aid calculator, and expert, hype-free college admissions advice.

6 Responses to “Are Top Schools Worth the Hype? [Guest Post]”

  1. Dr. Debi Yohn
    April 16, 2009 at 1:10 pm #

    This why making visits to the college campuses is so important. A campus has a culture which a student can quickly tune into. The parent also picks up information. I urge both parents and their soon to be graduate to walk the campus of hours. Do more than take the college tour where you are paraded around to what “they” want you to see.

    We sat down and made a list of colleges that we were interested in. We took into consideration the cost, the proximity of a support system and the majors offered.

    During the tour, my son often wandered off and spoke with current students while I kept up with the “tour”. Actually this was a great way to get all the bases covered. When we had visited all the campuses, the college he had listed last was his first choice. The list was actually in the complete opposite order from when we made it initially.

    When he got accepted to his new first choice, the stress was over. It proved to be the best choice and I had a happy, successful college student.

    For more information on Parenting College Students, down my FREE eBook: “Parenting College Students: 27 Winning Strategies for Success”

  2. Healthy Happy Successful
    April 16, 2009 at 3:53 pm #

    Yes, I agree that “find the school that’s right for you”, fit your child’s personality.

  3. Vanessa Van Petten
    April 18, 2009 at 12:20 pm #

    Very true!

    Thanks so much

    and, of course, thanks for reading!



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