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Choosing between Brand-Name Colleges and Low-Cost Public Colleges

Choosing between Brand-Name Colleges and Low-Cost Public Colleges

This is the time of year when plenty of super-achieving high school seniors are agonizing about their choices. Their parents are just as frazzled as they are. What stresses these families is choosing between an expensive brand-name university (often on the East Coast) or a relatively affordable public university.

I’ve been getting emails from parents who are facing these choices. Here are snapshots of their dilemmas:

The daughter of one mother was accepted into the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and North Carolina State University, but what got the teenager excited was a coveted acceptance from New York University. The mom shared this in her email:

She is determined to go to NYU because she thinks it's the best school and will give her all the contacts after college. She's paying for it so she thinks she can do whatever she wants, but she will have a $200K debt when she graduates in four years. Her dad and I think this is a huge mistake but she won't listen to us.

Also weighing in was a father from Southern California, whose son was interested in sports management and was accepted into Indiana University, University of Massachusetts and the University of Minnesota. While the dad considered it a long shot, his son applied to New York University and was accepted.

The dad works in a boom-and-bust business, real estate development, and while he has the money to pay for an NYU degree that he figures will cost $300,000, he wouldn’t be able to afford such an extravagant education for his youngest son who is just one year younger.

And then there is the mom in New Mexico whose daughter, a National Merit finalist, got into George Washington University, which was her dream college because of the location in Washington, D.C. and opportunities for internships. She received a $20,000 yearly merit scholarship from GWU. Her biggest scholarship haul, however, came from the University of Mississippi where she got into the honors program and received a full ride plus a yearly stipend.

I’ll reveal shortly where each student is going, but first, here’s a brief backgrounder about college pricing:

A Reality of Private Coastal Universities

East Coast universities like New York University and George Washington can charge higher prices because of the tremendous demand. Students want to attend college in big cities where it can be easier to obtain internships and living in these areas can be fun and stimulating. Students are also likely to have classmates who come from across the United States and the world. And it’s perceived that these are the colleges where you will most likely find valuable connections.

The Most Expensive Colleges

You can see for yourself which colleges and universities are charging the most for tuition and fees by heading to the federal Center for College Affordability and Transparency.

Every year, the federal center releases the names of the private colleges and universities that charge the highest tuition. The top five percent of private institutions make the list. The center also generates a separate list using the same criteria for state universities.

Four-Year Private Institutions Charging the Highest Tuition

  • Columbia University (NY)
  • Sarah Lawrence College (NY)
  • Vassar College (NY)
  • University of Chicago (IL)
  • Trinity College (CT)
  • Carnegie Mellon University (PA)
  • George Washington University (DC)
  • Oberlin College (OH)
  • Harvey Mudd College (CA)
  • Bard College at Simon’s Rock (MA)
  • Amherst College (MA)
  • Franklin and Marshall College (PA)
  • Bucknell University (PA)
  • Union College (NY)
  • Williams College MA)
  • Tulane University (LA)
  • University of Southern California

College sticker prices, however, are meaningless. With some significant exceptions, the majority of the colleges on the above list provide good need-based financial aid. So if you need financial help, attending institutions like Columbia, Amherst, Williams and Vassar would be awesome.

On the other hand, the majority of institutions on the above list provide little to no merit scholarships to high-income students. Consequently, high-income students might pay $250,000 or more for a degree.

Determining the net price is most important because that is the actual price you’d pay. A school calculates a family’s net price after subtracting any applicable federal and state aid, along with institutional scholarships or grants, from the cost of attendance.

The Center for Affordability and Transparency also compiles a list of colleges and universities with the highest net prices. The list is heavily populated with art schools and music conservatories, but it also includes traditional coastal universities.

Here are some of the coastal institutions on the list that charge the highest net prices:

  • Catholic University (DC)
  • Drexel University (PA)
  • Emerson College (MA)
  • Fairfield University (CT)
  • Fordham University (NY)
  • Loyola Marymount University (CA)
  • New York University (NY)
  • Pratt Institute (NY)
  • Santa Clara University (CA)
  • Sarah Lawrence College (NY)
  • Seattle University (WA)
  • University of Puget Sound (WA)

When money is an issue, you need to pay close attention to whether your child will qualify for discounts when looking at coastal and metropolitan schools. So where are the three teenagers going? The North Carolina teenager, who was dead-set on attending NYU, went to a local bank last week and was told that she needed a cosigner for a private college loan and her parents refused.

“Sadly, she's very upset,” the mom said.  “She doesn't want to go to the state schools, she says she's worked too hard and she doesn't think she will get the type of education she would get at NYU.” She has yet to decide between the two state universities in North Carolina.

Once the teenager from California got his NYU acceptance, he wasn’t interested in going anywhere else. The dad agreed that his son shouldn’t pass up this opportunity, but he also said that the younger brother might have to start at a community college because of the NYU expense.

The National Merit finalist from New Mexico who was excited to attend GWU ultimately decided to attend the University of Mississippi for free. The college has a tremendous Arabic program, which is her field of study, so she’ll spend a couple summers in Morocco. Thanks to the full ride, she’ll also have money for graduate school.

Bottom Line

Making decisions about where to earn an undergraduate degree will not be easy. But before applying to expensive schools, you need to have serious conversations about whether they are worth the price.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a best-selling author, speaker and journalist. Her book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, is available on

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