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Elite Private Universities: The Pros and Cons

Feb 16, 2011 Jennifer Williamson, Distance Columnist | 0 Comments

Elite private schools are typically what people imagine when they think of college. They offer all the perks of a college education—extracurricular activities, foreign exchange programs, Greek campus life, picturesque libraries with cute little study nooks—well, some library study nooks are cuter than others—and on-campus living.  There are distinct benefits to attending a private college or university, but also significant drawbacks. Here’s an overview.

Why Everyone’s Trying to Get In to Those Elite Private Schools

The on-campus culture

Many elite private schools have a dynamic campus social life. With the freedom from parents and peers who’ve known them since toddlerhood, many students find themselves blossoming in college—and finding a niche that works for them. If you want the traditional college experience, an elite private school offers that.

Elite College Pillars

Most elite universities aren’t geared toward adult and nontraditional students. That’s not to say that you can’t attend one as an adult or working student. 


Networking opportunities

Of course, both private and public universities have extracurricular activities and a campus social life. But at the most elite schools, the networking opportunities are often greater. Your freshman-year roommate might someday start or run the company you work for—or one of your professors might refer you to what becomes your first job out of college. Elite universities tend to let in the top students and hire professors who are leaders in their field—so the connections you make at an elite private school may be quite valuable later in life.

The “WOW” factor

Schools like Harvard or Yale have a reputation for exclusivity. If you were selected to attend, it’s assumed that you’re brilliant—much more so than if you graduated from a school no one’s heard of, or if you graduated from a state school. It might not be fair, but elite private colleges definitely have that “WOW” factor on resumes—and that can sometimes make a difference in whether you get an interview for some jobs.

Small class sizes and top instructors

Elite private schools do have some large lecture classes, especially during your first year. But most of the time, you’re likely to experience smaller class sizes and plenty of individual instructor attention. In addition, your instructors are likely to be the best at their game—competition for any tenure-track academic profession is highly competitive, so anyone who’s made it this far is likely to excel in their field.

Disadvantages: Why You May Be Better Off at a State School


Private colleges tend to be the most expensive in the US. As a private school graduate from one of the country’s top universities, you could hold up to $100,000—or more—in student debt. That can be crippling for even the most brilliant students—debt can affect where you live, which jobs you choose, and how much risk you can take with your career.

No guarantees

One of the most loudly-touted benefits to elite private colleges is the opportunity to mingle with the country’s brightest minds. However, there’s no guarantee you’ll make a connection that will further your career—or even that you have a greater chance of succeeding in life than you would with a degree from a state school. Whether the chance to network might pay off enough to cover your massive student loan debt is a gamble every student has to take when choosing whether to attend an elite private school.


Many of the top private schools have an academic culture that puts immense pressure on their students to succeed. Some students thrive under this kind of pressure—but some don’t. And some regret not relaxing and enjoying their college years more—or giving themselves a chance to experiment and explore which major is really right for them. If you want a less demanding college experience, you may be better off at a good second-tier school.

Most elite universities aren’t geared toward adult and nontraditional students. That’s not to say that you can’t attend one as an adult or working student, and that doesn’t mean they haven’t made strides—many elite private schools have made advances in online education. Even so, if you’re a nontraditional student, a school with lower tuition and more night classes might be better for you. That said, every school is different—so do some research into the individual schools you’re interested in attending to be sure they can meet your needs before applying.

Are Elite College Worth the Money?



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