Whether your child dreams of attending a prestigious university or has his or her sights set on a prestigious Big 10 school, you’ve likely heard that a college’s reputation matters. But here’s the rub: Many schools with stellar names also come with hefty price tags.

Because a college degree is a huge investment, it’s only natural to wonder what impact a school’s pedigree will have on your child’s educational experience and future job prospects. According to Mike Brown, managing director of Nitro College, an online portal that helps students figure out how to pay for college, you should be careful about letting that be the only factor in your decision.

“The value of college and university reputations is not as easy to discern as that of clothing or cars, but the stakes are so much higher,” Brown says. “Parents might see prestige schools as an opportunity to help prepare their child for professional success, but it’s important to consider the cost side of the equation and to get a handle on the affordability of the loans that may be necessary.”

WHEN A COLLEGE’S REPUTATION BRINGS VALUE

You might assume that graduates of those institutions that always top various “best colleges” lists fare better after graduation.

In some cases, they do. For example, if your child wants to work at a law office, a consulting firm or one of Wall Street’s investment banks, he or she is more likely to get hired as a graduate of an Ivy League. A recent study also found that business students who went to top schools earned 12 percent more than their peers, and those who went to mid-tier schools earned 6 percent more than those who went to the least-selective schools. Likewise, social science and education grads made more if they went to a better-ranked school.

Schools with great reputations can also provide impressive alumni networks and help students make contacts with peers who could go far in the future.

“If students are able to maximize the opportunities available to them because of attending a school with a good reputation, the payoff in terms of career earnings or getting a job after college can be great,” says Mary Grace Gardner, a college admissions expert who runs The Young Professionista and formerly worked in admissions at University of California, Berkeley.

The value of college and university reputations is not as easy to discern as that of clothing or cars, but the stakes are so much higher.

WHEN THE NAME DOESN’T MATTER AS MUCH

Do students who aren’t planning to go into business, education or the social sciences get the same reputational boost from an alma mater? The same study that showed a benefit for business majors also found that engineers did well no matter where they went to school, while humanities majors from top-tier and mid-tier schools made about the same. For science majors, school prestige made the least difference in career earnings.

But what about those impressive alumni networks? “Many students obtain jobs through internships and similar professional experiences these days,” Brown says, “so it is important to consider if the additional student debt incurred is worth it for a graduate’s overall financial future.”

HOW MUCH IS TOO MUCH TO PAY FOR A NAME?

One way to help determine whether a prestigious university is worth the price is to compare the relative cost of the schools you’re interested in, a degree’s potential earning power, and whether that is due to the major or the school’s reputation. Another key factor? Your financial situation and the likelihood that your child will have to take on significantly more student debt because they’re paying a premium for the name.

There are several online resources that can help: U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges ranking now includes the median starting salary for each of the school’s graduates, and PayScale provides both a College Salary Report and a College ROI Report. Nitro College also has an online calculator that can help you compare the value of pursuing certain majors at specific schools, based on what percentage of your child’s future salary could be going toward student loans.

Another thing to consider, according to Gardner, is what exclusive opportunities a school might be able to provide. For example, she says, “Does the school have a record for feeding a graduate school you’re interested in, or a company you want to work for? Does the school attract stellar professors engaged in cutting-edge research?”

If the school offers something that you can’t get elsewhere and the difference in price is small, then it may make sense to go to the better school, according to Gardner. But if you’ll have to go into a significant amount of debt in order to attend, it may not be worth it for you.

In a lot of cases, the amount of debt your child could carry after graduation will either be a huge selling point or deterrent for attending a specific school. After all, some college grads are now putting off important life milestones like getting married, having children and buying a home because they are overwhelmed by their student loans.

Gardner credits graduating debt-free with providing her with a significant financial boost. “My husband and I were lucky to not have any financial debt after graduating college, thanks to academic scholarships,” she says. “This financial freedom allowed us to save money quickly and do things like buy a car, buy a house or pay for our wedding by our mid-20s. Our peers were not as lucky.”

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