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Maximizing the Investment in Your Child's College Education

By Marty Nemko

The price of four years at a brand-name state university is approaching $100,000. At a brand-name private college, $200,000. And most students take more than four years.

With the possible exception of your home, your child’s college education is the largest purchase you’ll probably ever make, especially if you have two or more children. How do you maximize the value of your investment?

Choosing a College

These recommendations integrate the research findings of Alan Krueger and Stacy Dale at Princeton and the Carnegie Foundation and that of Caroline Hoxby at Harvard, combined with my own 18 years of experience as a college and career counselor.

If your child is Ivy caliber and aspires to a career that insists on a designer-label diploma such as investment banking or corporate law, it’s worth paying even the sticker price of an elite private college such as an Ivy or Stanford and certainly the price of an elite public institution such as Berkeley, UCLA, or the University of Virginia. While these schools have large classes taught by research- rather than teaching-focused professors, and these schools can be pressure cookers, the lifetime income and status gains are typically worth it. In addition, students grow a great deal from spending four years around the nation’s best and brightest.

For most other Ivy-caliber students, for example, those aspiring to be physicians, executives, public-interest attorneys, or other careers in a non-profit or government agency, the best payback probably comes from attending an elite public university. There are ample opportunities for challenge by taking difficult classes and honors programs, and the Ivy-caliber student at these institutions will stand out and thus be tapped for campus leadership positions, opportunities to work one-on-one with professors, which in turn, leads to great recommendations and leads on good jobs.

My daughter, for example, turned down Williams College, one of the nation’s most selective to attend UCLA that cost 75 percent less. There, as a brighter star among lesser lights, she stood out and so got leads into a job working for Hillary Clinton in the White House. If she were at Williams, she probably would not have reaped such an opportunity.

If, however, your family income is less than $50,000 a year and are admitted to an elite private college, your child should probably go. In that case, you’ll probably get enough financial aid to justify it.

If your child is not Ivy caliber and your family income is under $70,000, a small private college probably is the wisest choice. You would get little financial aid at a public university and significant aid from the better and well-endowed privates such as Grinnell, Santa Clara, Guilford, Beloit, College of Wooster, and St. Johns (MD and NM). At such institutions, your child will be taught by dedicated accessible teachers in classes small enough to provide detailed feedback on writing assignments, and to require your child to be prepared for class lest he be called on and left dumbfounded. The campus culture at these institutions is also good for promoting student growth as human beings.

If you have a not-Ivy-caliber child and your family income is much more than $70,000, the balance generally tips in favor of attending one of your state’s well-regarded public universities such as Indiana University, Wisconsin-Madison, Penn State, Oregon State, and the Universities of North Carolina and Washington. Consider in-state schools because out-of-state tuition is usually usurious. Why State U? Because for families earning more than around $70,000, the private colleges will offer little aid, and there are ample benefits of the public university: larger choice of courses and professors, more clubs, library and athletic resources, a bigger alumni network. You might ask, “But shouldn’t we decide whether our child should to a large versus small college based on whether he’d feel comfortable in a large college? With a bit of guidance (provided below) it is easy to make a large university feel small and homey enough.

A word about large non-elite private universities such as the Universities of Southern California and Miami, and Boston, Syracuse, and Tulane Universities. These are rarely worth the money. Not only are they nearly as expensive as an Ivy without the prestige, the most frequently taken classes are usually large and taught by research- rather than teaching-oriented professors. If you’re going to spring for the money for a non-elite private college, small one are usually wiser choices.

Making the Most of College

It matters more what you do at college than where you do it. I believe that the student who does each of the following at the College of New Jersey will grow more educationally and personally than a Harvard student who just goes through the motions. And for the reasons described above, his career will not be impeded for the lack of a designer-label diploma.


Get the best teachers. It can make all the difference. Here are ways to unearth them:

· Many campuses post the student evaluations of professors on its website or in a booklet available through student government.

· Get the list of teaching award winners, usually available from the college’s office of academic affairs.

· Ask the department (for example, English, Biology) administrative assistant, “Who’s good?” Admins get to see all the student evaluations of professors.

· Of course, ask friends for recommendations.

· Enroll in at least one more class than you plan on taking. Show up for the first session of each class and drop the one you like least.

The most valuable courses you’ll probably ever take include: writing, public speaking, basic computer applications such as spreadsheets, word processing and database, critical thinking, career exploration, human sexuality, and a course with an ideology different from your own. If you’re a conservative, take a course in radical politics. If you’re a liberal, you’re out of luck. On many if not most college campuses, conservative courses don’t exist, except those bashing conservatism. To get a conservative perspective, you’ll probably have to join the campus Republican or Objectivist club.

Maximize your chances of getting a professor taking you under wing by visiting during office hours with such questions as, “In class, you said X. Y seems to make more sense. What am I not understanding?” Or, “I really value your opinion. I’m not sure what concentration within psychology I should choose. Could you give me your thoughts?” Or, “I was fascinated by your description of your research. Do you need any help?”

Also, ask a favorite professor if you can do an independent study with that professor-—a one-on-one course on a topic of your own choosing. Most colleges allow these and they are perhaps the very best way to customize and personalize your education, and find a mentor.

Another way to customize your education is, when receiving a term paper topic that doesn’t interest you, to ask the professor if you could substitute a paper or project on a topic of greater interest. Usually, the professor will agree.


I must admit that I enjoyed the regular ol’ college activities: going to parties, hanging out with friends, and going to the ballgame. But your child will probably grow most by participating in one or more of these activities:

· hosting a show on the campus radio or TV station

· participating in student government, even if just as an unelected committee member

· being active in a club—from kayaking to photography-- or even better, starting a club on a theme your child cares a lot about. (Colleges encourage this.)

· volunteering to be the student representative on a campuswide committee, for example, the faculty senate.

· writing for the college newspaper

· playing on a sports team, even if intramural

Students should first visit the campus career center as a freshman. It will open their eyes to career options they might never have considered or teach them about internships that can be career launchpads. Choosing a tentative career early can assist in choosing a major, term paper topics, fieldwork assignments, and internships.

Also enhancing career prospects, students, as juniors or seniors, should become student members of the college’s alumni association. Most colleges allow this and doing so provides an excellent opportunity to build relationships that can lead to an internship or good job after graduation. Students also grow immensely by occasionally talkin about the meaning of life instead of the meaning of the ball game or that guy's glance, even if the conversation is lubricated by a few beers and lasts until the wee hours when the students have an 8 AM class that morning.


Despite the enormity of the investment, most parents do little to maximize that investment other than to push their child to get into the most difficult-to-get-into college possible, and then find a way to pay for it, even when it seriously impedes the family’s lifestyle or financial security. They then send Junior off to college with little more guidance than “Study hard, don’t drink too much, and wear a condom.” Following this article’s advice will help ensure that your child gets more from your college investment.

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