When Are “Name” Schools Worth the Price Tag?

Greetings to you all from sunny Orlando, where I’m spending the next few days at the American Advertising Federation national conference surrounded by hundreds of very sharp college students (much like yourself, dear reader) from around the country who are competing in the National Student Advertising Competition.

I’m also surrounded by obnoxiously thick, hot, wet air. I admire you Southern folks for being able to live with it on a daily basis without going nuts.

OK, down to business. Cassidy has some pretty general questions for me today on springing for a “name” school vs. — well, vs. schools that aren’t so well-known.


I’ve been following your blog about Nancy and Elizabeth‘s choices (dream school vs. financial alternative). Most of the advice is to possibly attend the “dream school” for graduate school.

Lil' Wayne went to Harvard, and although the student loans were dizzying, the fact that he now lives in a bank vault and sleeps on stacks of money is evidence that he made the right choice. (None of that is true, but it seemed like a good caption).

I am however, at the point of deciding on where to go to graduate school. My career center advisor told me that much of the “big name” (read Ivy league and co) schools get their prestige from the name, their teaching is not much different than other less “ivy” schools. However, my academic advisor and professors tell me that to have the best job prospects in my field (international relations, focusing in on Russia/Eastern Europe, with future governmental work in say the State Department) I should attend the “name” schools.

In other words, I share some of the dilemma of the previous cases, but am slightly different. I am looking at graduate schools, I don’t have a dream graduate school, and I want to make the best decision both career wise and financially.

What advice can you give?


Well, as you’ve probably heard me say before on this site, there’s not necessarily a one-size-fits-all, cut-and-dried answer to these types of questions, so let’s just start with some general advice and then break down some specifics for your personal situation.

Sometimes “name schools” have their “name” for a reason, and other times they don’t. I mean, I don’t think many people would argue that Harvard and Yale are overhyped clones of, say, Southeast Missouri State and Eastern Kentucky. However, there are also a lot of great public schools which, along with costing you significantly less money, will also earn you Β just as strong a list of job prospects as 99% of nameplate private institutions.

Adding another level of complexity to the equation are the schools and programs *within* those nameplate universities. Let’s say, for example, Cornell. In specialties like hotel management and labor relations, Cornell is top-notch. But that doesn’t necessarily mean, even though Cornell is a bona fide academic powerhouse of a nameplate university, that *every* Cornell grad program is worth a giant financial premium over and above that of a strong, cheaper public school.

Remember also that, even if the teaching is, as your counselor suggests, basically the same at Ivies and non-Ivies (an assertion that is probably true sometimes but often not), the real question is — how much does that even matter?

It sounds counterintuitive to say, but it’s true — what you’ve actually LEARNED in school is not always the primary reason you get the job you get. After all, the employer never really knows what you actually know — she just gets a resume (your personal claims about what you know), she sees the school you attended and, if you’re lucky, she gets a recommendation from a trusted source who says you’re hot shit.

And that’s where the name schools can and do come in handy; they instantly bolster your resume because they have reputations that precede them. “Cassidy Smith” may not mean anything to an employer initially, but “Yale University” certainly does. And it gives you an advantage over “Cassidy Jones” from “University of Palookaville” or some other (possibly very good) public schools whose reputation is not instantly known.

Now, having said all that, let’s look at your personal situation.

International relations means, as you said, very possibly working for the government, and of course working with officials in other countries. Anytime you get outside the U.S., the value of those name schools increases, because only our top, top schools are going to filter into the lexicon/mindspace outside our borders.

So, an absolutely killer U.S. public university like University of Michigan — a phenomenal school who can chest up to the Ivies any day of the week — still suffers a reputation hit overseas vs. a Harvard or Yale or Princeton or Stanford, because foreigners just aren’t going to have 50 of our top institutions on the tip of their brain. It’s just gonna be the top handful.

Again, though, everything is relative. Do you have connections already in the IR field? (If not, get started making some, quicklike.) If you do, then you’ve got a great shot at a great job without an Ivy League education, because nothing in the business world — whatever business you’re in — trumps connections and referrals. Nothing.

Another item to consider, as always, is cost. Remember what I’ve said before about how simple it is to sketch out the basic financial equation of expensive school vs. cheaper school. Subtract the projected cost of the cheaper school from that of the expensive school, and ask yourself if the additional cost you’ll incur from attending the expensive school is something you can make up throughout your working life.

For example, if it costs $50,000 for a master’s program at Harvard and $15,000 for a master’s program at — oh, I don’t know, UMass — that’s a $35,000 difference. Then, ask yourself — if I take this Harvard degree, will I make an extra $35,000 in my lifetime that I can SOLELY attribute to the choice of Harvard? If you think so, then great. Then ask yourself if you can afford to make the bigger student loan payments *while* you’re stepping up to that increased salary level. If so, go for it.

Also remember, of course, that finances aren’t everything. Let’s say that your research indicated that no, you would not make any extra money whatsoever with your Harvard degree than the UMass degree (highly unlikely, I know, but we’re hypothesizing here). The Harvard degree may still be totally worth it to you with respect to your happiness, which is always the real goal of any and every endeavor, yeah? If Harvard can better connect you with nonprofits who serve Third-World countries and that’s what your life’s calling is, then you may be more than willing to cough up an extra couple hundred bucks a month for 10-20 years for that opportunity.

That’s my wisdom for the way. But what about you — what do YOU think Cassidy should do? Let us know in the comments below.

I’m off to sit through seminars and perhaps, if at all possible, hit the pool and blind poor onlookers with the site of my pasty South Dakota white-boy skin.

Oh, and kudos to those of you gave me the business about my typos yesterday. I hate typos worse than anyone, and even though I was hurrying like hell to write yesterday’s post during my layover at O’Hare, I still should’ve held off publishing it until I’d had time to proofread it.

20 thoughts on “When Are “Name” Schools Worth the Price Tag?”

  1. Being that I am also an International Relations major and in a bit of the same boat, I would tell Cassidy to focus first on the strength of the programs. Look for schools that are known for having good graduate programs in IR, and, more importantly, look at schools that have strengths in both the region and area she’s interested in. A degree focusing on International Business, for instance, is quite different than a degree focusing on U.S. Foreign Policy and so forth… IR is a broad field.

    It’s also generally a field that’s not going to make you a lot of money, so she should weigh the costs of an Ivy League (or private) education with future earnings. For IR, she also needs to look at the location, because some cities/towns have more international opportunities than others. Harvard and Yale might have the best programs, but D.C. and New York are where it’s at in the IR field, and that’s where she needs to be if she wants to get a government job. I’m also going to go out on a limb here and add that most government employees do not have degrees from Ivy League schools… maybe the people up at the top, but the average bureaucrat… not so much, so the government considers grades, experience, and more important things such as whether you fit their requirements when it comes to hiring. She should also think about the amount of personal attention, academic support, and close relationships she can have with her professors as well as the career opportunities (internships, research, jobs, studying abroad, fellowships, etc) that are available to her at each college. Finally, she should consider the financial assistance and scholarships the school offers.

  2. Another thing to look at might be which school has a better study abroad program, and which is better at internship placement (preferrably in a government setting.) In addition to getting you connections here and abroad (which, like Josh said, is HUGE, especially with our major, those really stand out on your resume. I applaud the fact that you can even get into these big name schools. It really does all come down to what you want to do. If you stay here, you’ll probably have the name recognition either way. Not as much with one, obviously..

    Best of luck, though. I honestly see it as a win-win. =]

  3. If you speak any foreign languages, which I assume you do, why not do your post-graduate in a foreign country? If you’re looking for prestige and you’re willing to spend the money for it, I think this would be a great choice, not to mention an awesome experience.
    You probably speak Russian, but I don’t really know anything about the Russian higher education system, but you could look into that. If not, I know that there are several great schools throughout Europe (for example SciencePo. in France. There’s also the International Business School in Frankfurt, which might interest you eventhough it’s not exactly international relations. They dictate their clases in English)
    I’m studying international business, and I think this type of experience is essential in my curriculum.
    Just a suggestion…

  4. If you speak another language, which I assume you might, why not do your post-grad in another country? If you’re looking for the prestige and are willing to pay the price tag for it, I think this would be invaluable experience.
    I don’t know anything about the Russian higher education system, but you could probably look into that. I think a Russian official would certainly value an American with a degree from a Russian university. Or for that matter, from any European university (there’s the SciencePo program in France. And there’s also the International Business school in Frankfurt.–it’s not international relations, I know, but you might find something interesting there).
    I don’t think US student loans will apply for someone atending a foreign universitybut a lot of countries offer great scholarships for foreign students.
    Just a thought….. I’m studying international business, and studying in another country will give me a definite plus throughout my carrer.

  5. It’s important to know who you will be studying with in graduate school. Who will your potential mentors be, and what contacts do they have? Are they well respected in their field? What is the caliber of student you will be in a cohort with? What potential lifelong contacts can you make, professionally and personally?

    Consider the sources of your information: what institutions of higher education have they attended? That will color their recommendations.

    Work backwards. Have you made contacts with people who are doing your dream job? Ask them how they got there, and is that the usual route. Ask how they percieve this field is changing? If they are too famous, like the Secretary of State or something, you can look up their credentials in an online search.

  6. Another possible concern is grading profiles. I am attending a name-brand law school in Canada. We have a grading curve, meaning that my grades have nothing to do with how I do, but only show my standing relative to the rest of the class. Since this is one of the most competitive schools in Canada, I suspect my grades would have been better at a lower profile school.

  7. Since you mentioned typos, I’d just like to point out that you’d be blinding people with the _sight_ of your pasty white skin. The site where all this is happening is the same for you and for them–the pool.

    Otherwise, insightful blog as always! I’m a long time reader and a (very seldom) commenter, and I always like to read what you say, even if it doesn’t necessarily apply to me.

  8. hey judge, i was loving the advice in your previous posttts even though your style is QUITE radical. i just was wondering….whats with the celebrity names

    running out of material/ent

  9. You don’t even need a bachelors degree to work at the State Department. The Foreign Service Exam is open to anyone who can take it. Furthermore, I’m doing almost the exact same thing except I’m going to Europe to do it because its cheaper and a good place to learn about…Europe.

  10. Just my two cents again…I was in a very similar position. I went to a typical large state school where football, rather than academics, ruled. My grades were less than stellar in an International Affairs program. But my strengths were that I knew I wanted to pursue journalism and took every chance to gain skills that I could. My first job was at CNN, an enormous coup given my GPA. So, when it came time to advance the ladder there…I knew that holding my own against the Ivies would be tough. Instead, I ditched the GRE and attended the University of London for a post-graduate degree in Media. Get this…the tuition was lower than any other quality program that I looked at in the US. And I was graduating in the same university system as the London School of Economics, King’s College, Birkbeck, etc…I was reading in the same libraries as Marx and Desmond Tutu. Not to mention, my classmates were from around the world. It’s an experience I wouldn’t trade for the world. I’m with Josh. Avoid the debt and consider graduate school. Then, if you REALLY want an international job-go international!

  11. Before you go into any graduate program, no matter the school, look at the placement rate and talk to graduates about their experiences. Most schools want you to do research, and there are sometimes specializations within fields (like your emphasis on Russia in IR) that one school does better with than others. While the Judge is definitely right for you to make personal connections, sometimes the school can hook you up–and in that aspect, the smaller the program, the more attention you’ll get.

    By talking to graduates, see where they’re working now and ask if they were satisfied with their experience at the school. This is also good because it can help you solidify your career decision–are these people happy where they are now? Talk to everyone you can. Not all of the information may be useful, but maybe that extra person you found can give you a more realistic picture than the sugarcoated picture colleges will sell you.

  12. In regards to what your professors say about attending a big-name school, although your professors might be very intelligent people, some of them have spent their entire adult lives pursuing various levels of colllege education and have never worked a job in the real world outside of teaching college. Keeping that in mind, you should probably consider that your professors may not know exactly how to help you succeed in the real world. Their advice may be well-meaning but not necessarily helpful. You should probably listen to your career counselor’s and Judge Josh’s advice about attending a cheaper public school. You may ultimately find that your choice of school will not affect your ability to get a job in international relations. You should definitely consider the quality of the program beforehand.

  13. i will ask that what is the thing u love doing most?the course that is related to that thing you love doing most is the one you should go for.your potentials can never fail you,so do what you love doing best and not the one with the big money or name.

  14. @Polina/Terry: Man, I’m having a bad run this week. I’m gonna leave the typo up there so I can suffer the slings and arrows that I deserve. πŸ™‚

  15. I’d agree with with Jane that location is a huge factor in what you should probably be looking at. New York and DC are going to be the places in the US where you have the most access to international relations professionals, for internships and job opportunities as well as adjunct faculty. I attend American University in DC (which has the country’s largest international relations school), and the most valuable thing about going to school here is the access that it provides to government and NGOs. I imagine embassies would also be beneficial in your case; I’m a political science major. (The second most valuable thing is the name, which has excellent recognition in the DC area and in the IR field, and has an increasing reputation). Education isn’t just about what happens on campus, so it’s good to look for a location that will provide a beneficial “extended classroom” for you to experience.

  16. I feel that Cassidy should take a minute and breath and then look at the schools itinerary and choose the one that fits her and what she is really want to get to in her life. If you judge it on the amount it cost it will bury you. All schools are basically the same some are have big names while others don’t. For heavons sake don’t go to school because of their name.

  17. I am a big fan of education. I am an even bigger fan of staying out of debt. Go for the degree program that suits your needs and wallet. Do not base it on the name of the institution and what it can do for it. The degree alone should suffice for future job prospects.

  18. I’m exactly the same down to the East Europe. Well, Central Europe really, but we don’t differentiate. Like others have suggested, I”m only applying for schools in Europe. I’ve been studying abroad for the past year (next semester will be my 4th abroad) and I have no desire to return. There’s some great schools over here. and if you’re worried about prestige (which i think is legitimate) there’s world rankings you can look at. πŸ™‚

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