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  • Writer's pictureAvery Gavornik

Measuring the value of an Ivy League education

Updated: Nov 19, 2020

Is an Ivy League school a good fit for you? What to consider before hitting that accept button.

It’s very common to learn that some of our most prominent American CEOs, elected lawmakers, and top medical experts hailed from an Ivy League school.

But higher education has changed dramatically since the Ivy Leagues first garnered their distinction as the nation’s top learning institutions, and colleges and universities across the country have been fighting to earn some of the reputation ever since.

What began as a group of eight incredibly competitive athletic colleges known for their well-rounded athletes - Harvard University, Yale University, Columbia University, Princeton University, Brown University, Dartmouth College, Cornell University and The University of Pennsylvania - started to gain more and more attention and soon became the most talked about schools in the nation.

Receiving more funding and popularity, admission became more and more competitive.

Since then, these schools have continued to prepare their students for a promising future in their field of choice.

Financial endowments for the Ivys range from $4.7 billion (Brown) to $41.9 billion (Harvard), the largest of any higher education institution in the world.

It’s safe to say that Ivy Leagues are prestigious schools that provide their students with countless networking opportunities, intelligent professors, and have some of the most successful alumni in the world.

Graduates of Ivy League schools in the past have also typically made more than those who attended non-Ivy League schools.

Overall, Ivy League schools have always been and still are the highest ranking schools in the world - and the opportunity to go to one should not be dismissed lightly but neither should it be assumed to be the only or best path to a successful career.

There’s a lot to consider when choosing a college.

How will the school’s reputation help you in the future?

One of the main considerations is whether the Ivy League reputation - which is certainly strong - will be particularly useful in a future career.

According to the College Gazette, “The point of education is not just to help a student get a job, but “finish’ their education as well - from both social and humanities perspectives.”

Michael Fanning, a member of the Communication Advisory Council at the College of Charleston and former Global Director of Sustainable Development at Michelin, believes students must decide if the juice is worth the squeeze.

“Ivy League schools have a very significant brand, so you have to decide if that brand is worth the investment and if it pays off at the end of the day." - Michael Fanning.

Employment rating is the percentage of students who become employed within a year of graduating or decide to go to graduate school. While an Ivy League degree is going to be impressive to many employers, it doesn’t guarantee a job. And many colleges across the country have become masters at helping their graduates network with alumni, connect with local and statewide businesses and ultimately get their students hired.

But the biggest edge is probably catching the attention of a potential employer glancing at resumés.

Mary Garrett, president of M. Power Coaching and Consulting LLC who also attended Brown University for graduate school, said she thought an Ivy League school “would be somewhat of an advantage, but people interviewing today look way beyond the school you attended. The school is only one of 10 things they look at. It always comes down to the individual. Institutions are more creative and cooperative.”

Bill Walsh, president and managing director of Birchwood Partners, agrees.

“I don’t think they’ll get the job necessarily over someone who didn't attend an Ivy, but it may give you a leg up in getting an interview. Once you’re in front of that person, all bets are off." - Bill Walsh

Kevin Eggleston, human resources and people lead for U.S. manufacturing at Anheuser-Busch also thinks there could be an edge in being noticed.

“It definitely helps getting noticed and makes you stop and look. It makes you look at a resume for a second or two longer." - Kevin Eggleston.

Does the school offer the best education for a field of study?

One very important thing to consider when choosing a school is to think about what you want to do in the future.

There are some areas of study that are going to be particularly well-suited for Ivy schools, such as law or political science, because the liberal arts are very strong in the Ivy League schools. It’s what they are known for.

But students interested in agricultural engineering, for example, would be better at a land grant university like Colorado State University or Texas A&M in which the ag engineering departments have been one of the historically great departments in that area across the country.

Or students wanting to pursue creative majors such as dance or music may find better career opportunities after college if they attend a school that specializes in the arts like the Rhode Island School of Design.

Likewise, a student interested in becoming a broadcast journalist would find much more opportunity at a large university with major resources for its own campus media to provide training and practical experience.

For example, the Medill School of Journalism, Media, and Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University has over 18,000 alumni, including author of the book turned TV show "Game of Thrones," George R. R. Martin. The Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse has won several awards for its specialty programs, such as The Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting and Mirror Awards.

“They’re (Ivy Leagues) more pertinent to certain industries too. If you want to go into Investment Banking, then yes Ivy’s have better networking and are better for getting your foot in the door. But if you wanted to study communication, The University of Missouri, Arizona State, Northwestern and Syracuse all have great programs for this,” says Fanning.

A final point to consider is what you ultimately want to do within your chosen area of interest. If a student wants to pursue a degree in education to get involved in the policy end and creating curriculum or shaping governmental policy, then an Ivy League background would be a very good avenue.

But if the goal is to be a teacher, a school with a “lab” that provides students the opportunity to work as an intern at the university’s preschool or elementary school is probably even better preparation.

The point is to think about the kind of education experience you will receive at an Ivy school vs. a non-Ivy school.

“If you want to study something such as government, science, or law, your best bet for a good education is going to be an Ivy League,” says Jeffrey Gavornik, a professor of biology at Boston University.

What is the monetary value of the Ivy education?

It’s important to think about your return on investment or ROI when applying to schools.

Is what you have to pay for this school going to balance out what you make in the future?

According to the U.S. Department of Education Scorecard, there can be a big difference in earnings potential for Ivy League graduates. The median salary for an Ivy League graduate 10 years later is more than $70,000 a year, compared to a median salary of $34,000 for all other graduates. And among the top 10% of Ivy League graduates, the annual salary is closer to $200,000.

So it’s true that an Ivy League graduate likely makes more than that of a non-Ivy league graduate, but paying thousands of dollars in tuition and student loans should be factored in.

To put tuition in perspective, cost of attendance at Columbia University can cost more than $60,000 a year, whereas out-of-state tuition at a public university such as The University of South Carolina will cost around $33,000, and attending a four-year community college will average about $9,000 a year.

At the same time, the financial support and resources afforded an Ivy League by its successful alumni and donors can be a big difference.

“We’re (Boston University) bigger than most Ivy league schools and cost about the same but we don't have the reputation of someone like Harvard (who’s right around the corner) and we don’t have their money,” says Gavornik. “A school like Harvard has so many sources of funding and endowment, and it’s really not any more expensive than a small private school and has so many more benefits.”

According to Dr. Kat Cohen, who owns a college counseling firm, an Ivy league education can be valuable, but it is also possible to get a great education at a fraction of the cost somewhere else.

In a post-pandemic economy, it’s more important than ever to keep in mind if money is going where you most want and need it to.

Going to an Ivy League is not going to be a bad thing. The high quality education and the stellar reputation will be worth it.

But the high cost and perhaps not the most linear way to get training for an area of interest should be weighted as heavily when deciding on an Ivy League education.

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