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Bargain Trend in College Shopping : Applicants Weigh the Costs, Benefits of Name Schools

February 14, 1986|From The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — Yale. Harvard. Stanford. Princeton. They're the top names in higher education--titans of tradition, quality and prestige. Serious students and their parents would give their life's savings for those acceptance letters.

Or would they?

With a grade average of 3.92, Beth Barr ranks sixth of 439 at Bethesda-Chevy Chase (B-CC) High School, a suburban Maryland public school that annually sends about 8% of its graduating class to Ivy League and Seven Sisters colleges. Barr, 17, is smart, attractive, a hard worker. She fits the elite college admissions profile in every way--except one: Her first choice among colleges is the University of New Hampshire.

The New Bottom Line

Like a growing number of high school seniors nationwide, Barr's bottom line in choosing a college is, alas, the bottom line--the price tag. While campus location and quality of education are factors, Barr, who also applied to the universities of Vermont, Virginia and Wisconsin, Bucknell and Dartmouth, says today's high cost of college education is most likely to sway her final decision.

"I was really interested in the University of Vermont, but its tuition is up," says Barr, who describes her family income as upper-middle. "At New Hampshire, it's about (half as much). I really wanted to make sure I had money in college for other things."

If Madison Avenue marketed college education like beer, the operative slogan this year would be "Less Great! Tastes Filling!" Top-notch institutions offering high quality for a high price continue to attract 15 or more applicants per freshman vacancy. But, according to some education experts, never before has attention been more intently fixed on the lesser known and even "no-name" schools now flexing credentials as "the best of the rest." Unable to confer Ivy pedigrees, they provide instead simply good degree programs at affordable prices. In other words, a good deal.

"Viable alternatives" is how B-CC career information specialist Judy Hunt describes them. Hunt matches seniors such as Beth Barr with colleges. There are indications, Hunt says, that families of college-bound students are scrutinizing, more than before, the Best Deal schools. Although the B-CC class of '85 collected 36 Ivy League and Seven Sisters acceptances, it also received 33 invitations from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, nine from the University of Vermont, Burlington, six from UC Berkeley, and five from both the University of Virginia and the University of Colorado, Boulder, all among state universities that some experts claim are gaining ground on the Ivys in quality if not prestige.

'Cost Effective'

"Students here are still very name conscious, unfortunately," says Hunt. "They still think you get hired after college graduation because of the name of your school. But there is an increased awareness of what's 'cost effective'--among parents more than the students."

A small Michigan prep school recently ran head-on into the phenomenon, according to Richard Moll, dean of admissions at UC Santa Cruz, and author of "The Public Ivys" (Viking: $18.95). In a letter sent to college admission officers, the prep school advised that "One notable difference in this year's college placements was due almost entirely to economics and may call for a new category on our placement list: Accepted at first choice college (usually private or more selective) but attending another that costs less."

The message is clear, contends Moll: "Even parents with ready cash are wondering if 'Olde Ivy' is worth two or three times the price of a thoroughly respectable public institution."

Converging Factors

The emergence of good-deal academia is motivated by several converging changes in the U.S. economy and higher education--not higher costs alone.

"With the cost of college continuing to go up at double the rate of CPI (consumer price index)," says New York Times education editor Edward Fiske, whose new guide, The Best Buys in College Education (Times Books: $9.95), is about to go into a second printing after six weeks on book stands, "more and more people are saying it's not worth that additional debt and strain on the family to get into a name college that will be recognized by the neighbors."

Fiske, whose book claims to identify 221 colleges "that offer high quality education at reasonable cost," harangues about the crippling cost of education with some chilling statistics: The price tag for four years of education at a public university rose by nearly 12% a year between 1979 and 1984. The nation's most prestigious and selective universities have already topped $15,000 a year for tuition, room and board. Students in the Class of 2000 can expect to pay $45,000 for four years at a public institution and $140,000 at a private one.

He says when you add to that the Reagan administration's accelerated efforts to cut federal funding for students with financial need, the pocketbook principle is increasingly applied.

Shift in Demand

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