fork in the road a college

Going to a Top School vs. Saving Money

Michael Lux Money Saving Tips, Student Loan Blog, Student Loans 4 Comments

For some, the question is do I take out student loans to pay for the top-ranked school or do I accept a full-ride at a state school. For others, the question is do I pay full tuition at the local university or save money by going to a community college. The vast majority of college students face this question in one way or another: Pick the expensive school or save some money?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a simple answer. The most important thing is to take the time to make a well thought out decision. Careful thought can lead to a well thought out decision can help avoid mistakes and prevent regrets. Before you decide, it is critical to ask yourself a few critical questions.

Will the expensive school be my final destination?

The classic example: If you go to Harvard law, nobody cares where you went for your undergraduate degree. If grad school is in your future, the name on the undergrad degree becomes far less important; in some cases, it becomes trivial. Things like your GPA, major, and test scores can all end up being more important than where you went to school for undergrad.

Along the same lines, where you start your degree does not matter. The part that matters is where you finish it. If you spend two years at a community college and complete your degree at a more prestigious school, it won’t hold you back at all. You will save some money, and if anything, potential employers will see the wisdom and work ethic that went into your educational path.

On the other hand, community college may not work out, or you could end up with bad grades, so there is a risk. However, it is probably worth noting that success at community college and any other university are closely related. If you are going to do well at one, you will probably do well at the other. You may even do well enough at community college to get into a school that denied you coming out of high school.

How important is “who you know” and how are you going to meet them?

The Internet has helped level the playing field in this regard, but many industries and employers are still much harder to access if you don’t know the right people. Having access to the right network can be very important. You have to investigate hard to find out the quality of a school’s network, but this aspect may be worth spending a little extra money. If fashion is your passion, you may be able to get a great education in Nebraska, but the network you build in New York could be the key to success.

What do you want from your day-to-day life?

If you are breaking the bank to go to school, it means you won’t have money for luxuries such a spring break trips, a nice apartment or fine dining. Attending an expensive school can necessitate saying no to your friends who don’t yet understand that student loans are not monopoly money, but are in reality a future burden. If you spend big on tuition, you will have to limit your spending in other ways, both during school and after.

Remind yourself: If I attend an expensive school, it will mean making sacrifices. These sacrifices can include an extremely tight budget before and after school. Substantial student loan borrowing often means delaying marriage, buying a house, and starting a family.

Picking the expensive school could be a risk, and this risk can have profoundly negative consequences. Be willing to face the music if things don’t work out as you hoped.

Final Thought: Trust Yourself

College spending is quickly becoming a popular subject of discussion. Getting thoughts and insights from people you respect is great, but you have to make the final decision. It is your life, and it is you who will be on the hook for the student loans.

If you are agonizing over the decision, that is a good sign. It means you understand the consequences of your choice. Put lots of thought and research into the decision, but once you decide, own it. Don’t look back and wonder what might have been. Life is full of forks in the road and looking back with regret will only prevent you from making the most of the road in front of you.

If you do end up borrowing money to attend college, be sure you know how to make smart decisions on picking the best loan and managing the debt while you are in school.

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

I’ve hired dozen’s of people over my 20 year career, and never made that decision based on what college someone’s degree was from.


Although name recognition is important, it is what you do with your education that is more important. I think it is better to graduate phi beta kappa from UCLA vs. bottom of class at Harvard. Career choice and performance trumps everything five years out!


I agree with the previous commenters. It doesn’t make sense to attend a top college if you can’t afford it.


When I went to college, I had three options: Ivy League with no scholarship, middle ground with half scholarship, and very affordable local. I chose the middle ground because my parents pushed for it. It ended up being a great fit for me. I loved that school. Financially, I wish I had maybe stayed more local. I think if I had gone out and really pushed myself (multiple jobs, multiple organizations, top of the class etc.) I would have had a similar level of education at that local school. I could have saved a lot more money. Now I just have to find other ways to save and make more.