The Most Expensive Colleges Have One Thing in Common – This Recruiter Has Never Heard of Most of Them…

If you matriculated from an expensive private school, allow me to say this up front – I’m still your fan.  If you’re good at what you do professionally, articulate and able to point to a body of work that distinguishes you from others like you, you rock.  Seriously.

I just don’t understand why you, or your family, had to pay WAY into the six digits to get you there.  I’m sure you could have gotten into State U., even if all the townies (Like me?  That’s harsh…) decided to go there.

I didn’t get the whole cost of education thing until I was out of school and married to a fellow State U. alum.  A hoops scholarship paid most of my bills, and Angela had partial academic scholarships.  So, it wasn’t until she and I were out of school that I learned that lots of other couples had six-digit student loans to pay off.  Many were scheduled to retire the debt in their mid to late 30’s.

Here’s my point.  If you’re considering which college to go to, going to a privately held Ivy League school would seem to have some brand equity and ROI for you for the rest of your life.  I get that.  But going to a private college for 25-40K in tuition annually when the name recognition will fade after you drive 4 hours away from campus?  Doesn’t seem like the best play in a global economy.

Most of you reading this are recruiters and HR Pros.  Check out the following list of the most expensive schools in America and tell me which ones you would recognize on a resume.  From the Consumerist:

1. Sarah Lawrence College | $53,166
2. George Washington University | $50,312
3. New York University | $50,182
4. Georgetown University | $49,689
5. Connecticut College | $49,385
6. Bates College | $49,350
7. Johns Hopkins University | $49,278
8. Skidmore College | $49,266
9. Scripps College | $49,236
10. Middlebury College | $49,210
11. Carnegie Mellon University | $49,200
12. Boston College | $49,020
13. Wesleyan University | $49,000
14. Colgate University | $48,900
15. Claremont McKenna College | $48,755
16. Vassar College | $48,675
17. Haverford College | $48,625
18. University of Chicago | $48,588
19. Union College (NY) | $48,552
20. Colby College | $48,520
21. Mount Holyoke College | $48,500
22. Tufts University | $48,470
23. Bard College at Simon’s Rock | $48,460
24. Franklin & Marshall College | $48,450
25. Bard College | $48,438

I bolded the ones I think would have national brands that get recognized by lots of recruiters, and there are obviously some great schools in there.  The problem?  The rest of them charge the same freight, and while you might get a great education, the national ROI probably won’t be there.  Union College?  I’m sure it’s great, but once you get out of the Northeast, some Midwestern recruiter is going to ask you if that’s “the junior college over by Cedar Rapids”.  You just paid more than 130K after discounts to get the sheepskin.


Final note – While all of these colleges probably have great academic reputations, the other reality is that there are thousands of private colleges that still tote 30K annual tuition price tags before discounting, compared to the 6-8K you can find at most regional public institutions.  The name recognition fades within two hours of leaving campus in a lot of those.

Looks like State U. for the Dunn boys…

FOT Background Check

Kris Dunn
 Kris Dunn is Chief Human Resources Officer at Kinetix and a blogger at The HR Capitalist and the Founder and Executive Editor of Fistful of Talent. That makes him a career VP of HR, a blogger, a dad and a hoops junkie, the order of which changes based on his mood. Tweet him @kris_dunn. Oh, and in case you hadn't heard the good word, he's also jumped into the RPO game as part owner of a rising shop out of ATL, Kinetix. Not your mama's recruiting process outsourcing, that's for sure... check 'em out.


  1. Laura says:

    Excellent post. You’ve at least got one college career services staffer reading along through RSS. There is actually research out there that suggests that for most students, name brand colleges do not significantly improve their standing in life. Name brand colleges however, do significantly help students of a lower socio-economic status. I would love to see any feedback on which colleges your HR pros do recognize.
    P.S. I forwarded this to a friend that works in the Union College career development office!

  2. Joel Kimball says:

    Oh, I could write a book….
    Yep, I went to a private school (nope, you’ve never heard of Alma…, as did my wife, as are both my girls, as my son may or may not (his choice). Yep, it was expensive.
    Nope, it had nothing to do with “name recognition” or ROI and everything to do with “fit”. After scholarships (“better keep those grades up, kids, cause Div III SPLACs don’t offer sports scholarships”), I didn’t owe a nickel when I graduated. They still place 100% of their grads into Law School who apply, 99% into med school, 98% into dental….etc.
    I wouldn’t have fit in at “40,000 of Your Best Friends and You U”….but most of my colleagues at did. And that’s why we have both – they didn’t want to go to a school with 1200 students and 5 people in 400 level classes in your major. I did, and it was the right choice for me. State U was right for them – cool.
    ROI? Dunno, don’t care. Go where you will learn and enjoy it. Nothing sucks more than hating school…except hating your job (cause with any luck you’ll be in a job longer!). And in both cases, I’d suggest “fit” plays a huge role for many folks.
    Good post!

  3. Kris, the biggest ROI I’ve seen private schools offer some of my peers that my state education didn’t was extra attention and a little more hand holding and resources. At least in my neck of the woods, the private schools do more “prepping” for the business world than the state colleges do.
    If you can hold your own and figure your own way, the education is virtually the same, and the “character building” aspect of finding your own path is priceless.
    – Chris

  4. Jessica Lee says:

    i’d say some of the power of the schools/brands listed there, including the ones not in bold, it’s partially a regional thing. on the east coast, i feel like the names/schools matter a bit more and i’ve had to become familiar with those schools whereas on the west coast, it just didn’t seem to matter.
    something i heard an alumni/development pro from harvard say once… you aren’t only paying for the education. you’re paying for a network that you have for life and i think there’s a lot lot lot of truth to this. generally, most of these schools listed have really strong, powerful alumni networks… and from a career and business development perspective, it holds some weight.
    i went to a state school and hate to admit it… but there’s definitely something to the network notion.

  5. KD says:

    Laura – thanks for checking in, and for reading FOT. I’m going to reach out to you via email, because I’d love for you to write a guest post about the research you refer to. That would be good context for the comments here.
    Joel/Chris/Jessica –
    Thanks for checking in. Here’s some qualifiers I would throw out there based on your logical and strong insights:
    1. If you can get all the private school cost paid for, that’s great and you shouldn’t worry about the ROI. Happiness is worth a lot, as you mentioned Joel, good point. If you can be debt free coming out and happy all the way through, go for it.
    2. The networking thing only goes so far. JLee, you mentioned the network in the NE, and that’s fair. My post said the network effect fails 4 hours out, and I’ll stand by that.
    3. On the networking/branding issue, if you plan on moving (and who can’t plan on that these days), the private school with no national brand recognition makes no sense and put you at a significant disadvantage. The person who goes to Haverford and has a network in the NE is dead in the water by the time they hit South Jersey (assuming its north of there). Every region has private schools charging 35K in annual tuition, and lots of kids pay 60% of the freight and get no name brand recognition once they move one state over. Happens ALL the time.
    4. It’s still about the person over the college brand. Chris, you’re the perfect example of that. Hustling young HR pro doing a branded thing online. If I’m a VP of HR at a company you’re applying to, the extra stuff you do means more than the college brand. Why not pay state school tuition rather than that Mount Mercy exclusive sheepskin.
    Great comments and thoughts. I’ve been around the block and seen tons of candidates. Get two jobs out in your career and the university means nothing unless you’re Ivy or luck into a contact where you want to work from your undergraduate school.
    Can you get private tuition paid in full? Go for it and be happy as Joel astutely points out? Got to pay 20K more a year for a non Ivy private school? Go to state U, and start a blog like JLee and Chris while you practice your craft. You’ll come out ahead…

  6. Meg Bear says:

    As a fellow state school scholarship (and Pell grant) girl I have always had “big name” envy. That said, over the years I’ve worked with an equal number of stars and duds from big schools as state schools. I am very interested to see how I view this when my own girls arrive at college age. We’ll have to compare notes in 10 years on this one.

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