A college diploma is probably the most expensive piece of paper you’re ever going to buy. This isn’t to say that it isn’t worth owning, just that you should be a savvy consumer when you go out shopping for one. After all, it’s not just money you’re putting into this exchange — you’re also probably choosing where you’re going to live for a few years while you go through your papering process. So before you get too far into agreeing to offer up thousands of dollars as sacrifice to Higher Education, let’s throw out some pointers and considerations.

You are not paying for an education.

That may seem a bit odd, but I assure you that it’s true. If you were paying for an education, then you’d have some guarantee of getting an education. But the truth of the matter is that enrolling in college only gives you the opportunity to get an education with your results varying based on a goodly number of things — most notably how sober, awake and keenly interested you are in the courses you are attending. Even the worst of teachers can’t keep the most aggressive of students down.

You are, however, paying primarily for three things: the reputation of the school, the network of the professors, and access to a peer group. Geographic location of the University (which impacts the cost of living of professors and thus how much the University has to pay them) is a multiplier on top of this, rather than something which is directly paid for — but it does have an impact that we’ll talk about before we’re done.


But the truth of the matter is that, for a typical University, most of the money you fork over to them is going to be spent buying into their reputation. Surely you’ve heard the names Harvard, Yale, Stanford, MIT — they’ve got reputations and huge waiting lists of people wanting to buy into those reputations. And because they’ve got long lines of people wanting to buy into their respective reputations, they don’t actually have to offer much of anybody discounts (that is, “financial aid”) to entice them to join their University. Now it is possible that these reputations are entirely deserved and the Universities are worth every penny — but I doubt it and that’s why I’m writing this for you.

A University builds its reputation on the work of its professors — especially those that can go do research or schmooze with partners in industry instead of teaching lots of students — and its students that have graduated and become wealthy and well-known (and perhaps gave a lot of money back to their University). So if you’re paying attention, you’ll notice that the network of professors and peer group are things that contribute to the University’s reputation, meaning that the money you’re giving for their great reputation is paying for what previous students got out of their professors and peers.

But here’s the thing: a University actually has a whole lot of reputations that vary from department to department despite tuition being a fixed fare. The school I went to had a great reputation for music, nursing and teaching. Their math and computer science departments were relegated to old trailers on the edge of “lower” campus, past the “old” gymnasium. Suffice to say, I got ripped off when I paid tuition for those courses. (Though, in the University’s defense, they did have one Computer Science professor who was fantastic and the course I took from him was entirely worth the tuition. Additionally, I was a Communication major first and foremost, and the Communication faculty were fabulous.) The key learning you should take away from this is if you are paying for a course that isn’t in, roughly, the favored top third of departments at the University, you are paying too much. There are two implications that branch off of this: First, fluff classes (called “General University Requirements”) are very probably overpriced because they’re from those other departments that are desperate to keep their classes running — try to take similar classes elsewhere (like community college) and transfer the credits in. Second, and more importantly, it is almost certain that going to University before you’ve got a clue as to what you want to study is a waste of money because if you don’t know what you want to study then you won’t know which University you should attend to study it.

Do not misunderstand this — you don’t have to have your major set in stone before you step into a college class. There is a world of difference between being undecided (or “on the fence”) and not having a clue. If you’re undecided between several options, you can still go to a University which has strong academic programs for your assorted options and then choose one of those later. The point here is to avoid paying premium rates for courses that your University isn’t very good at teaching and you can’t do that if you are taking whichever courses a guidance councilor is sending you to.

So that’s the crucial first lesson: don’t pay for a University’s reputation if their reputation doesn’t really extend to the department that you’re taking courses from.


The next thing that Universities are going to be billing you for is access to their professorial staff outside of the classroom. Some Universities will brag about how all of their professors teach and they don’t have aides giving lectures. I can assure you that this isn’t valuable — ignoring that some professors are just plain awful at professing anything, what you should focus on is this: time that a professor spends lecturing to a room full of students is time that they’re not giving you focused attention or feeding you unique opportunities that have come across their well-cultivated social network. What kind of opportunity should you be looking for? Well, consider that I didn’t learn to write by going to class — I learned to write by spending time with the professors going over what I was writing in one-on-one sessions until my voice was consistent from my speaking to my writing. On the flip side of that, our Computer Science department was honestly proud of getting students internships with Weyerhauser, the pulp and paper company, which is about as uncompelling of a resume line as a technologist can possibly write. Again, I got my money’s worth from one department, but not the other.

This probably sounds odd because you don’t yet know what to expect from a University professor. A good University professor is a total geek about their preferred subject and will chatter on enthusiastically about it if you even begin to suggest that you are deeply interested in it — that’s what their Master’s or Doctoral papers were all about. Well-rounded professors keep in contact with their peers and previous students and use that social network to help hook their favorite current students (and professors absolutely play favorites) into internship and job opportunities. Finally, ideally, good professors manage to balance their tolerance for disinterested students and the amount that they are contractually obligated to teach students who they identify (rightly or wrongly) as disinterested, such that they have adequate time reserved for the keenly interested students that they want to spend time with — these may be referred to as “Office Hours” or, if you’re lucky, be held at a nearby coffee shop. Professors are most likely to fail at that last element — professors are geeks first, not teachers, and are thus quite vulnerable to feeling like their teaching job is distracting from from getting on to the stuff they really care about. This is doubly true when you realize that most professors you will have access to probably aren’t paid nearly as much as their industrial peers or ex-students, a fact which often exasperates them to no end.

So the second crucial lesson is that you don’t really want to be paying for a professor to teach a class so much as you want them to make their other qualities available to you — to which end, you will absolutely want to spend time visiting with professors and interrogating them on their specialities and social networks to get a feel for how well they’ll hold up if you give them that same kind of treatment as a paying student.


But the University isn’t just charging you for the reputation it has built on the shoulders of its professors. No, it’s also charging you for your fellow students. This thought probably doesn’t occur to most High Schoolers, whose experience with “fellow students” comes down to a freakish happenstance of geography, but it’s true. If you attend Duke or Notre Dame or one of those schools with a huge reputation and no discounts, you are getting (amoung other things) access to people who come from backgrounds and families that can afford to send them to a school like that — and who better to start a business with than a classmate that won’t have to go begging for venture capital? You’ll encounter this same behavior later in life if/when you go to buy a house — rich people spend a lot of money to live in certain neighborhoods where they won’t have to be near poor people. The upshot here is that you should revel in the availability of your fellow students and make some good, smart friends that you intend to keep in close contact with for an awfully long time — the University is certainly charging you for them.

This is where we can talk about the discounts (they’ll call it a “scholarship” or “financial aid”) that Universities with lesser reputations may offer to entice you to join them. Do not think for an instant that they are offering you a discount just because you are smart or talented. They are offering you a discount because they’re hoping that some of your brilliance will help to illuminate the dim-but-rich kids who are paying full price for their education and that your almost certain post-graduation success will improve the University’s reputation thus allowing them to raise their prices. The discount that a University offers is really just open admission of how much they need top-caliber students to build their reputation and justify their non-discounted price.

Naturally, there are two sides to this. If a University offers you a huge discount, then be cautious that they might be desperate because they don’t really have anything to offer you and really just intend to offer you to other students with similar interests but less refined skills. Additionally, remember that for all of the “scholarship” and “financial aid” talk they give, it all boils down to a discount, which might as well be a coupon. There is no guarantee that they will keep giving you the same discount from year to year — the initial discount I was offered was cut in half for my second year despite my dogged efforts to retain the discount because I didn’t understand that it really was just a discount and not a reward for my qualities and virtues. That said, there’s no reason for smart and talented students to not expect a discount from any mid-grade University; they want you because you’re going to make them look good.

The point of this aspect of the discussion is to clear up any illusions you may have about financial aid, with my advice ultimately being to not look at how steep the discount on University fees may be but at the overall cost. A small private University with an expensive list price that is offering you a steep discount may not actually provide a better educational opportunity for you than a large state University that simply has lower tuition from the get-go — pay attention to their reputations and figure out what you’re paying for and what each of the Universities will expect from you.


To close, we should discuss where a University is located. I previously mentioned that rich people will spend a lot of money to live in a neighborhood where there aren’t poor people. But if a University is located there, or a lot of the University’s staff live there, then I can assure you that the University is going to cost more than another University with a similar academic reputation. But the price difference isn’t necessarily bad. After all, if you are physically co-located with your University, then we’re talking about where you’ll be living for a few years and living someplace nice isn’t bad. I didn’t pay nearly enough attention to this and ended up going to school in what was effectively a ghetto in South Tacoma. Had I been thinking broadly, I would’ve spent more time looking into options in New Mexico, Arizona and Texas (or at least Austin).

That said, there is a distinctive lingering socioeconomic impact, particularly if you end up taking out student loans to pay for your time in University, and it is that you will be saddled with the heightened cost of your socioeconomically advantaged University no matter what you do or where you go afterwards. As a for-example, one of my friends went to UCLA down in Los Angeles. It’s a state school and not obscenely expensive by local standards, but significant student loans are par for the course. Now he’s married (and his wife also has UCLA loans) and has some kids. A while back his wife wanted to move to San Antonio, Texas, so he solicited some job offers and what he told me is that he could move to Texas and support his family well enough there with what he was offered because San Antonio was a cheap place to live — but because San Antonio was a cheap place to live, he wouldn’t be getting paid as much so he wouldn’t be able to pay those student loans that were based on the obscenely high cost of living in Los Angeles.

The upshot of this is to not ignore the regional economy of a University and how it will impact the total cost of your college experience. If you go someplace that is economically depressed, you may miss opportunities (if opportunities are there at all). Conversely, if you go someplace that is astonishingly expensive, you may end up regretting the preclusion of future life choices based on your need to pay off student loans.

So when you are choosing which University to give many thousands of dollars to, remember to consider the following:

  • Are you getting your money’s worth out of their reputation?
  • Are the professors adding unique value that you couldn’t get from a textbook?
  • Are you getting good value out of your classmates?
  • Has the University offered you an appropriate discount for the value you’ll provide to it?
  • Do you expect that the University experience will be worth your net investment in it?

The college diploma is a strange thing indeed: You can invest tens of thousands of dollars and several years of your life and not get much back of it at all. It’s because tens of thousands of dollars and several years of your life isn’t really what you’re putting into it, but what you’re ante-ing up to have the opportunity to put something into it such that you can really get something back out of it. To that end, you need to spend some careful time researching your University options to figure out which is the optimal choice for you.