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College shopping: Big fish or big pond?

Amy Fontinelle

Posted on August 10, 2023

Amy Fontinelle is a personal finance writer focusing on budgeting, credit cards, mortgages, real estate, investing, and other topics.
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Discuss the networking opportunities versus the mental challenges of being a below average student at top-ranked college.

Look at the financial considerations involved with being an above average student at an adequate college.

Point out that for some students it may be more about the quality of the specific program instead of the school.

When choosing a college, students often struggle to figure out which schools will be the best fit. Since the primary purpose of going to college is to further one’s education, the school’s academic reputation is usually one of the biggest concerns. So is affordability, and colleges and universities with lesser reputations tend to have lower tuition rates.

With all the trade-offs involved in deciding where to attend, there often isn’t one obvious choice.

And sometimes it comes down to deciding whether it makes more sense to be an above-average student at a school with a lesser ranking or reputation, or a below-average student at a school with a greater ranking or reputation.

Which education choice will serve a student best, not just during college but also after graduation? And at what cost? (Related: Is student debt worth it?)

Below-average student at a great college

Let’s say a student — we’ll call her Emily — has been admitted to Yale. While she hasn’t been a straight-A student like many of her future classmates have been, she got into an Ivy League School anyway thanks to her long-term commitment to extracurricular activities she’s passionate about, her challenging course load, and her compelling essays. She wants to attend, but she and her parents worry that she might be overwhelmed by the school’s academic demands and that she might not fit in with the other students.

They see several advantages to accepting the challenge of potentially being a below-average student at a top-notch school:

  • A better-looking resume for grad school and jobs.
  • Better future networking opportunities with college alumni.
  • The opportunity for Emily to stretch herself and improve more academically than she might at a lower-ranked school.

Emily has a solid work ethic, so she might get better grades than expected, and she knows there are ways to ease the strain if she ends up struggling. She could take the minimum course load during the academic year and take extra classes in summer school to keep up, for example. She also knows she won’t be the only one in her situation; even high school students who graduate at the top of their class go to great schools where they suddenly seem average or below average. What should she do?

“For certain careers, having graduated from an elite college can make the student much more attractive to employers,” said Janet Rosier, a college admissions consultant in Connecticut, in an interview. “However, simply attending an elite college is not enough. Students need to have a high GPA and also stand out in other ways,” such as displaying leadership and obtaining work experience, she said.

Choosing a higher-ranked college or university may indeed open the door by impressing graduate school admissions officers and future employers. But that isn’t the only reason to pick a school that might be out of one’s comfort zone academically.

“Students learn more when the bar is set higher, just as athletes need a coach who will push them to achieve more physically,” said Janet Ruth Heller, president of the Michigan College English Association in Portage, Michigan, in an interview. Heller also taught various humanities courses for 35 years at 8 colleges and universities. “Having the ability to solve complex problems, to think creatively, and to work well with other people in groups are skills that good colleges teach students. All of these skills are very important in academia and in the job market.”

Going to a highly ranked school that might be too challenging academically could also hurt Emily. She could fall behind, get discouraged, suffer academically, and have trouble graduating in four years. She might have trouble making friends because of real or perceived differences in intelligence and abilities. If she has a poor GPA on her resume, companies might screen her out when she applies for her first job, and she might have to take extra steps to bolster her grad school applications. She could also find herself struggling with depression and anxiety.

“Too often, I see students at Harvard or MIT who, for the first time in their lives, aren't at the top of their class, and not only is it a major blow to their identity, it creates stress and pressure, which distracts from personally developing in other ways,” said Bobbi Wegner, a clinical psychologist specializing in stress management at Boston Behavioral Medicine in Brookline, Massachusetts, in an interview.

Indeed, about a quarter of college undergrads surveyed for the National College Health Assessment in 2022 said they had experienced feelings of mental distress. Mental health problems are a common reason why students withdraw from college, according the World Economic Forum.

College costs can be another factor. If attending the higher-ranked school means taking on massive student loan debt, the stress on the student not only during college but also for a decade or more after graduation might not be worth it. (Calculator: How much do I need to save for college?)

Indeed, the average student loan debt load for a college graduate is around $30,000, according to U.S. News and World Report data.

Above-average student at an OK college

Suppose Emily, our hypothetical high school senior, has another option: attending a large public university that doesn’t rank in the top 20 colleges in the country (using U.S. News and World Report rankings) but is still within the top 100 and has an acceptance rate in excess of 35 percent. For comparison, Yale has a No. 3 ranking in 2022 and 5 percent acceptance rate.

The large public university would likely cost less. According to the College Board, tuition, fees, and room and board for full-time students averaged $27,330 for in-state residents at public four-year colleges and universities, $44,150 for nonresidents at a public four-year college, and $55,800 at private nonprofit four-year colleges for the 2021-2022 academic year. Various college aid options, which would depend on individual circumstances, could change that cost spread. (Related: A primer on college financial aid)

At such a university, Emily would be an above-average student, but she wouldn’t graduate from college with a prestigious school’s name on her diploma. However, she might be more likely to receive a merit scholarship, and, once enrolled, she might get more attention from her professors or have more opportunities to work on independent projects with them if she stands out academically. Completing a senior project or thesis offers another way to stand out.

“I would generally argue that being successful at a poorer-ranked school has an advantage,” Wegner said, adding that it allows students to graduate with better grades and less stress and affords more opportunity to invest time in other areas, not just academics. They may be more likely to develop as a well-rounded adult who is well-prepared to join the workforce and is in a better state of mental health.

Rosier thinks otherwise. “From an educational standpoint, I see no reason to be academically way above the student profile at a given college,” she said. “The student will not feel challenged and not gain enough from the experience.” But she also said that “being at the bottom of your class at a highly regarded institution is not particularly helpful.”

Emily and her parents might worry that she won’t learn as much at the large public university as she would at Yale. But if she wants a greater challenge, many such public universities offer an honors program.

“Many students may find an honors program at a flagship state university will give them the best of both worlds — a large university with an opportunity to take classes in a variety of disciplines as well as some smaller classes, research opportunities, and other perks,” Rosier said. “And if the honors program comes with a merit scholarship, this makes the choice even more attractive.”

Further, attending a college or university with a lower ranking overall but a standout program in an area a student wants to major in can make attending that school worthwhile. If Emily wants to major in accounting, a public university may be an excellent choice. For example, the University of Texas at Austin accounting program is ranked one of the highest in the nation by U.S. News and World Report. Yale has comparatively more limited undergraduate accounting options.

The trade-off in networking opportunities is trickier to evaluate. A Yale graduate has access to a much smaller but perhaps more powerful network than a typical public university graduate. But most public university graduates have access to a dramatically larger network because such schools generally have significantly larger student bodies.

Right mix of academic challenge and comfort

“I think it all comes down to finding the best fit for your unique personality and your abilities. No one wants to be at place that is terribly overwhelming, and most students who want a challenge do not want to be at a place that doesn't challenge them,” said Sarah Langford, a college counselor and independent college consultant with On the Quad College Consulting in Chicago, in an interview.

That means visiting campus, sitting in on a class, spending the night in the school dorms, and asking students and professors lots of questions. “If you feel overwhelmed, then the school may not be the best place for you. Or, if you do not feel like there are enough like-minded people who challenge you intellectually, it may not be a good fit, either,” she said.

“At the end of the day, a student is going to be successful in a place where he or she feels nurtured and safe and is encouraged to grow,” Langford added. “In this environment, a student will achieve great things.”

Discover more from MassMutual…

Handling student loan debt

Want to take a 'gap year'? Check your wallet

Biggest freshmen financial flubs

This article was originally published in September, 2016. It has been updated.


The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual, its employees and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from your own tax or legal counsel. Opinions expressed by those interviewed are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company.