Paying that tuition for the Elite Private University: Will it really open more doors?


20140408_174325pamelasFor those of you following my posts on college and college visits, thank you for your public and private comments. I hope this post will resonate with many of you and spark even more debate and discussion, so load up my comment box.


After our visits to Case Western Reserve, Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, my house became somewhat of a house divided. The heated discussion perhaps at this point of the game was maybe pointless. We were at the beginning phases of the college search. My daughter has high grades but had yet to take those multiple college entrance exams. She hadn’t even applied.

But what if she applies to places like CMU, or my husband’s alma matter, an Ivy League institution, and gets in? My mother-in-law (don’t worry, she never reads my blog) has this crazy idea that my daughter should apply to Yale because they have a fantastic graphic and visual arts program. With tuition at these colleges averaging around $64,000 a year, for a field that is super competitive and mostly employed by freelancers who have to pay their own way for health insurance and retirement funds, I hope that my mother-in-law has a huge college fund set aside for her grandchildren that she has not yet told us about.

Granted, private universities have large endowments and are more likely to bestow deserving students with a generous financial aid package. Let’s look at CMU’s 2012-2013 financial aid profile:

Nearly 70 percent of incoming freshman applied for financial aid and of that group, 77 percent of them were found to have financial need and were awarded an average financial aid package of $35,000 per year.

That same week we visited Pittsburgh-area colleges, the New York Times published a troubling article that said that the elite colleges were becoming even more elite. This might be in part because of the new common application process, where students can fill out online a common application, tweak it just a bit according to each school’s requirements, and with a click – and an extra fee per college – can apply to numerous colleges all at once.

The article stated “….Deluged by more applications than ever, the most selective colleges are, inevitably, rejecting a vast majority, including legions of students they once would have accepted. Admissions directors at these institutions say that most of the students they turn down are such strong candidates that many are indistinguishable from those who get in.”

This article, plus the media coverage that has been pointing to a troubling trend for years that college debt is crushing a generation who can’t find work outside of becoming a barista at Starbucks upon graduation, made me pose the question to my husband – is that private university price tag truly worth it. Isn’t it fiscally responsible to get a great education at a quality state school over an expensive private school?

One take on that outlook is this: When looking at job applicants fresh out of school, those with the Ivy League or private colleges get looked at first, and those graduating from a state school have a greater chance of being overlooked.

For those of you who are graduates of a public state university, like me, that answer can really sting.

I posed this question and put it up for debate on my Facebook status. Got a slew of comments.

Some, who were Ivy League graduates in their 40’s, wondered if they would be accepted by their alma mater if they applied today. A fine arts graduate from CMU said she was accepted based on her portfolio and that parents need to “chill out.” There are “best schools” out there as far as status, but there is a school out there for every student which will serve them the best, and that may not necessarily be an Ivy League school.

Graduates of public state schools stood proudly by their alma mater and said from a regional standpoint, companies know the reputation of state schools in their area. Many managers are, in fact, products of those state schools. However, the grooming and the connections one gets at an Ivy League are clear advantages, some said.

So, there is no clear and dry answer.

My husband and I were still mulling this debate over when we went for breakfast at Pamela’s, in the lovely Shadyside neighborhood in Pittsburgh. As if by some cosmic fate in the academic universe, an older couple was watching us from a nearby table. They were admiring our three children as they wolfed down their pancakes and waffles and listened to our conversation about getting into college.

As it turned out, the gentleman was a mathematics professor at the University of Pittsburgh.

“Listen to me. Don’t waste your money if you have a great in-state public university at your doorstep.”

Which we do.

“I’ve seen so many kids burn out at places like CMU in the undergrad years. The University of Pittsburgh is a fine, fine university. Don’t go into debt,” he said, then turned to my oldest. “If you want the elite private school status, wait for graduate school, where if you get in, they will most likely pay your way through grants and scholarships.”

And with that, he paid his bill and the couple bid us a good day and good luck.

The issue: still up for debate. And I welcome your comments. 


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About stacylynngittleman

I have been a reporter and public relations professional for over 30 years, specializing in profile features and investigative longform writing. During my career I've profiled WWII Honor Flight Veterans, artists and musicians and have written on topics that range from environmental and gun control issues to Jewish culture. Click around on my writing samples plus read my blog on my personal life raising three kids over 27 years and three cities.

4 responses to “Paying that tuition for the Elite Private University: Will it really open more doors?”

  1. letstalkaboutfamily says :

    I agree with the professor. Go to the affordable school and get good grades and take part in activities. Then go to the elite grad school if it still looks important and if the student hasn’t changed his area of interest so that he doesn’t need it. The grad school is the one that counts. That is where you find your mentor and meet the important people in your field. Even the grad school can be a top notch state university. So many students drop out or change majors in the first 2 or 3 years. Take the time to pick the major, get the degree and then go for broke. No need to take so many loans that burden the student with debt.


  2. Marice says :

    Hi Stacy! Happy to weigh on in this for what it’s worth… I do like your mother-in-law’s idea b/c they we would see you more, and I would totally have your daughter over for dinner and she could do her laundry here! That said, speaking as a professor at a mid-size liberal-arts based school who attended a large state school for my grad degree, things you might want to keep in mind are the type of educational setting in which your daughter learns best, and the categories of the schools. Flagship state schools and Ivies are considered R-1s, that is faculty-and grad student research oriented, with significantly less emphasis on faculty teaching. The majority of the intro-level classes will be very large lectures (100-300 students) taught by TAs or part-time faculty. At a non-R1 school, the faculty may or may not be as superstar research-wise, but there will be much more personal attention and interaction with that faculty (with the later opportunities that will provide as they provide mentoring), as well as much smaller classes that are usually taught be people more invested in their teaching (our classes cap at 25, the art classes at 12 or 15). R-1 schools, state or private, will offer a wider variety of classes and sometimes a more diverse student body and often more “school spirit” type of atmosphere.
    If she decides an R-1 is best for her learning needs, I would definitely do a state school over an Ivy and go to the Ivy for grad school, for the financial reasons. UM, Rutgers, Iowa, whatever, has faculty that rivals the ivies– it’s the grad degree that mattes most for future, and if one is accepted there is usually fellowship money available. Good luck!


    • stacylynngittleman says :

      Hi Marice,
      Thank you for your very well-qualified insights. J said she wants to be at a big school in a larger city because she feels there, she will get the exposure culturally she will need to hone her craft, whatever that will turn out. We will keep you posted as we go along this exciting yet stressful journey, and wouldn’t that be nice in a dream world if she ended up near you, but I’d make her do her own laundry : ).


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