In 2010, I received a full a full-scholarship to the University of Baltimore School of Law. I, however, had my mind set on another law school: George Mason. At the time, George Mason was ranked close to the coveted top-20 law schools in America. The University of Baltimore, however, was considered a “Tier 3” law school—academic code for “you’re so bad you don’t deserve a number.” However, George Mason didn’t offer me a scholarship. I would have to pay full price.
My decision boiled down to the following: (i) attend George Mason, the more prestigious school, but go into serious debt, or (ii) attend Baltimore, the significantly less prestigious school, but graduate with no debt. It was a $100,000+ decision.
To help make my decision, I bought all of the popular college books out there. I even consulted U.S. News and World Report, the supposed gold standard in college rankings. Mr. Responsibility, right? Too bad none of them helped.
For the reasons below, none of these books helped me answer that question, and relying on them will leave you wandering, too.
Why Traditional College Guides Don’t Help Students
Most people wrongly believe that “prestige”—without regard to any other consideration—solely determines college value. The notion of “prestige” is captured in factors such as how exclusive the college is, how distinguished the faculty are, and how medieval the campus architecture looks.
Mistakenly, there is no consideration to the practical consequences of a college degree, such as employment prospects or cost of tuition. Under this theory, two colleges with identical “prestige” erroneously carry the same value, even if the first college costs $50,000 per year and the second college costs $0 per year. This is why all the resources I consulted for law school failed me: they viewed college value too narrowly, through only the lens of “prestige.”
But finances cannot be overlooked in one of the biggest decisions a person, let alone an 18-year old, will ever make. Thus, college prestige must be weighed against the cost of graduating from that college.
The HACKiversity College Guide: How to Find the Right College
In reality, to find the right college, students must consider everything about a college, including:
elements typically associated with prestige (e.g. college exclusivity, learning quality, professor credentials) and
elements associated with practically (e.g. employment rates, tuition costs)
After all, when investing four years (or sometimes five or six) and hundreds of thousands of dollars, students should be able to count on a decent job upon graduation. That’s why a broader perspective of the college landscape is essential for how students can find the best college.
With this framework in mind, let’s explore how students can find the right college for them:
College Category #1: Elite Colleges
Elite Colleges are the top-20 colleges in America. Think of the Ivy-League schools (e.g. Harvard, Yale), the West Coast powerhouses (e.g. Stanford, Caltech), and the other brand names scattered throughout the country (e.g. MIT, Duke). Elite Colleges offer:
1. better job prospects
2. higher pay
3. better networks, and
4. (often) chapter price tags
If given the opportunity, students should enroll in Elite Colleges.
College Category #2: In-state State Schools
Studies show that, out of all non-Elite Colleges, employers love state schools the most, especially major public colleges, because graduates “are often the most prepared and well-rounded academically, and companies have found they fit well into their corporate cultures.”
For example, among the top five employer-preferred colleges are Penn State, Texas A&M, Illinois, Purdue, and Arizona State. Notice that these colleges are not the top-place winners in the U.S. News rankings, the supposed gold standard for college rankings. Penn State is #47 and Texas A&M is #63, for example. But who cares what U.S. News says? Getting a great job after graduation is what matters. Here’s the bottom line: if you don’t get into an Elite College, you can get an edge by attending a major public university, particularly the flagship state school located in your state.
College Category #3: Community College
With tuition at all-time highs, students are desperately trying to save money. One of the best ways to do this is to complete general education requirements at the cheapest college possible. Then, after racking up two years’ worth of cheap credits, transfer to a brand-name school and receive a brand-name degree.
What’s more, many community colleges partner with in-state public colleges, where students who obtain an associate degree at the community college are virtually guaranteed admission into the state school.
Community college also offer students the unprecedented ability to experiment with different career paths and cultivate self-awareness at low cost. At traditional four-year colleges, however, students can spend tens of thousands of dollars on tuition in just one semester. These financial pressures force many students, against their wishes, to prematurely select a college track. At community colleges, students can take a variety of courses for a fraction of the cost.
Finally, community college is not just good: it’s better than what people pay for it. One of the biggest surprises I came across while researching for HACKiversity was how many students who attended community college raved about it. In fact, some graduates with whom I spoke actually regretted not going to community college.
Armed with this information, you can answer the “how the find the right college” question. Hundreds of thousands of dollars and a lifetime of consequences are riding on your decision. Fortunately, you don’t have to guess…at least not any longer.