The College Paradox


My son is a junior in high school and starting to look at colleges. He’s a smart, thoughtful kid who doesn’t seem to be stressing too much about where he goes off to school. At the same time, since my DW and I have been good savers in the 529 plan we set up for him when he was little, we’re not too stressed about the magnitude of the expense either. He’s flexible and so are we.

That allows us to look at quite a few different colleges & universities. In doing so, I am quite struck by the very broad range of tuition costs that we are seeing and wondering how good is “good enough” when investing in what school he will go to? The dilemma I have is what I call the “College Paradox”.

One side of the paradox is that I believe that a smart, hardworking kid is going to learn as much at a more affordable state college as they are likely to at a more expensive, fancy private school. I went to among most humble of small state colleges and learned enough to be quite successful in life. While I also went to a private liberal arts college for my graduate degree, I have definitely exceeded almost every one of my “fancy college” friends & colleagues in terms of career success & financial fortune. “Smart kids do well where ever they go to college” I sometimes say.

At the same time, I believe that who you know can be more highly correlated with success than what you know. That is to say, “the best reason to go to Harvard is to meet a lot of others that have Harvard educations” (and connections). I believe that being in that social structure (and having the attendant expectations) can be a big difference maker. I see broadly in life that people tend to live up (or down) to expectations formed by their reference group. I was fortunate to work in a group of Ivy Leaguers in my early career and that cohort certainly shaped my expectations of myself. Context matters.

So what to do with my own son? Our current thinking leans toward a smaller, Midwestern, private college – but not one with a national reputation or big “brand name”. A respected state school in the Big 10 with the right focus on his field of study would also be fine, although I think he prefers something smaller.

To use an analogy, if Harvard is like Bloomingdales (small & exclusive), we’re thinking that Macy’s would be fine for us. Good quality stuff, but still accessible. At the same time, I’m not looking to save upfront with a college on par with a discount store like Walmart or Target. Not that we don’t shop there – just that we want to set the context for our son and his future.

How are you thinking about college for your kids? How does it relate back to your own choice for college when you were their age? Is there a difference in the kind of college you pick for a Bachelor’s degree versus a graduate degree?


5 thoughts on “The College Paradox

  1. this is so true – however, there are so may opportunities to network these days, if you REALLY want to, you can make up for second gap while saving some moneys on a pretty similar education somewhere else for 1/3 or half the cost. OR you can find a college abroad and have them with that unique experience on their resume as global experience becomes even more important…

    In the end – a smart kid will figure it out no matter what. Since there are pros and cons to everything, given them a couple of decent options and then they can work on whatever ‘deficit’ came out from whatever they picked.


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