My answer to this question is the same answer I (like most academics) always give to almost every question:
This is why academics annoy people, I know. But really, the answer is complicated, and entirely depends on factors specific to each applicant.
Advice for everyone:
In terms of pure quality of expertise, the faculty are broadly comparable at any institution of higher education in the U.S., since for the last several decades institutions have all hired from the same overpopulated pool of people with Ph.D.s from a small circle of prestigious graduate schools.
But there can be very big differences in, first, how much one-on-one interaction you get with faculty, and, second, the culture of the student body—how focused students are, how motivated, and how stimulating they would be for you. These differences don’t correlate with the superficial prestige of a given institution—schools at all levels vary widely in these terms.
In many cases, you can get an outstanding education at relatively low cost at a public institution, and you will have missed nothing for bypassing Harvard.
However, in some cases the cost-benefit ratio is different: what you personally can achieve with a more prestigious degree may justify a higher investment in obtaining the degree.
And sometimes a very expensive private institution may actually be cheaper than a public one if they want you badly enough to pay you to come!
In short, making the best choice for you depends on doing a lot of very specific research. And you can improve your range of choices vastly by preparing well: do your best work at every level of education, engage thoroughly in your courses, and talk with faculty and professionals in the fields that interest you. Get as much information as you can before making your decision.
Advice specific to aspiring undergraduates:
The answer to the question of which school you should go to depends on what you want to get out of your degree, on your personality, and on the field you will study (which of course you may not know yet!). But the short answer is that making the right choice for you needs to be a much, much more complicated reckoning than just U.S. News and World Report school rankings (which actually tell you nothing at all of use).
At what kind of school are you most likely to do the best work you’re capable of?
A small, residential college that feels like a family?
A bustling, huge research school that gets your juices flowing?
A place where you’re around students that are a lot like you?
A really diverse group?
People who will constantly challenge you?
A place where you’re the “big fish” and can feel confident?
How important is the name on the diploma for the specific kinds of jobs you want (and how likely are you to stick with that goal)?
This consideration necessarily involves taking a big risk, because you may very well change your mind about a career goal. But in any case, it’s worthwhile to do careful research about several prospective careers that interest you. If you can, interview people who have the kinds of jobs you want, and ask what level of education is required, what kind of GPA is expected, how much employers care about what kind of school you went to, and many other questions too, about salary, job satisfaction, rate of advancement, benefits, etc.
How important will it be to your career goals to have one-on-one faculty mentoring?
Will your future employability rest on recommendation letters and/or connections, or on your test scores and degree from a post-graduate professional school?
What do you want from your education besides employability?
College should also enrich your life and your mind in ways that cannot be measured in dollar signs. What kind of enrichment do you most want and need?
Do your horizons need to be broadened by a place different from what you’re used to?
Do you need a really rigorous environment where the “life of the mind” is the primary focus?
Do you need access to lots of activities to siphon off all your excess energy, so you can focus?
Do you need a comprehensive general education program that forces you to explore fields of study you tend to avoid when left to your own devices?
Or do you need/want to specialize very intensely (think really carefully about that one — what if you change your mind? — would you still have options?)
Find out exactly what the financial picture would be for you if you went to each of the prospective institutions you’re thinking about.
Don’t just look at the ticket price listed on web sites! The most expensive private schools also tend to offer the most aid, and more often in grants than loans, as compared to other schools with smaller endowments. Do all the calculations (including room and board and living expenses, taking into account cost of living in different areas) for each school. If you’d need loans, find out how much your payments would be after graduation, the interest rate, and how long it would take you to pay it off assuming an average starting salary for the very specifically defined types of jobs you hope to get. You may have to go through the whole process of applying and filling out the FAFSA before you’ll know the real numbers for each school, and it may be worth applying to one or two schools you think you can’t afford, to see what they can offer you.
Advice for aspiring graduate students:
Again, the answer here depends on your field and prospective employment after graduation. But at this level in certain cases it probably matters more that you go to a highly ranked school for your subject than it does in undergrad. In other cases, it matters even less! Read on.
First, a given institution can be top-tier for one degree program, second-tier for another, and third-tier for still another program. And Ivy League schools, or other top schools everyone has heard of like Stanford, Berkeley, and Chicago, are not automatically the “best” schools for a given field of study. You need more specific information. The best people to ask are probably recent graduates from programs you’re interested in, who are now employed in the kinds of work you want.
For master’s-level work, the prestige of the degree-granting institution is less likely to matter than for other graduate degrees. Sometimes, if you’re already working in a given field, you can get tuition assistance from your employer for a local graduate degree. Look into this before starting a program. And, if you wish to work in a given location, local programs may make you more employable than distant programs that technically rank higher.
In master’s and doctoral programs in the liberal arts, you’re more likely to work with a specific advisor, and having a great advisor who actively supports your work and is widely respected in the field may be more important than the prestige of the institution you attend. This is something you should talk over in very specific terms with undergraduate advisors or other academic mentors.
BUT—be very wary of a general liberal arts master’s degree. These can make you “overqualified” for many jobs, and not qualified enough for others, leaving you in an academic no-man’s-land. Only go for a liberal arts master’s if you know exactly how you will use it, and that it is certainly required (or, if you can afford it, if you simply want to enjoy the education!).
An MA program can be a way of strengthening your application to a Ph.D. Program (but an incredibly expensive way; you may be better off excelling in your BA and writing an impressive thesis). This is different outside the U.S., so again, consult advisors about your specific situation.
An MA can also be a way of achieving a higher income for teachers, librarians, and other professionals, but you should find out exactly what programs are preferred, when you need to complete one, and whether your employer can help you pay for it.
For law school, things are quite different in several ways. First, many law firms seem to be especially concerned with the prestige of the school you graduated from. There are many, many law schools out there that are happy to take your tuition money even though they may not make you employable at all. Get information from knowledgeable people in the kind of law and location you hope to work in, about where most of their lawyers got their degrees.
Medical and business school are similar to law school. Law, business, and med students tend to borrow enormous sums on the assumption that their high salaries after graduation will make repayment possible. This may be the case, but know that:
(a) for your first several years in your profession, assuming you’re hired, your income will mainly go to paying off your loans
(b) you may graduate into a glut in the market, and be saddled with an impossible debt burden
(c) not all medical, business, or legal jobs pay equally highly. Many lawyers, especially, do not earn the kinds of incomes required to pay off off law school debt.
Then there’s the Ph.D. (or the MFA and similar terminal degrees for the arts). Here’s another field with a glut of qualified graduates: academic research and teaching. College-level teaching almost always requires a Ph.D. In almost all academic fields, the number of Ph.D.s from top schools is vastly higher than the number of positions, so that graduates from even second-tier schools are limited to adjuncting (this is slave labor with extremely low wages and no benefits, and very little hope of moving to a permanent position), or community college positions (which tend to be all or mostly teaching positions at lower pay than 4-year institutions).
The advantage to teaching at a CC is that there are many of them, usually in every community in the country, so you may be less geographically circumscribed than if you search for a tenure-track position at a 4-year. But, increasingly community colleges are able to hire people from top-tier institutions, so even this is not a given. You should research your field very specifically.
There are a few fields in which academic jobs are actually growing (being both interdisciplinary and very applied in your research seems to be the key here), and a few where salaries are higher than average (accounting, law, etc), but still less than in non-teaching positions in the same field.
Whichever level of prestige enjoyed by the school you choose, it is NEVER a good idea to enter a Ph.D. program without full funding (tuition, fees, plus a stipend). It is extremely unlikely that a Ph.D. will earn you enough to pay back years of loans. Don’t ever plan on it.
Important final caveat for prospective students at all levels:
You have to ask yourself all these questions. If you allow other people (say, your parents or friends or academic advisors) to tell you who you are and what you want, you may find after much time and money have passed you by that their image of you was filtered by their own limited perception and their own wishes for you (they always are), and therefore not entirely accurate.
Exploring what you really want and need is difficult, especially when your experience of the options is still limited. Consulting with others is a good idea, but test everything you hear by the yardstick of your own gut instinct about your skills, goals, and potential. The best you can do is to continually re-assess as you gain more experience. No decision is 100% irrevocable, and often the twisty path takes you exactly where you need to go, when a shorter, straighter path may have rushed you to the wrong destination.
And, of course, you should never just take my word on any of the issues raised here. I wanted to raise questions worth asking. Other academics will given you different advice based on their experiences. Perhaps some will do so in the comments on this post!