Paying for the Label

Several years ago, I asked my wife what she wanted me to buy her for her birthday. We had just purchased our first home, were starting to talk about having children, and I had just started working on my Master's degree.  Our budget was tight, but I wanted to make sure I bought her the perfect gift that year. "Eh, nothing special" she replied, without even looking up from her book. "I'm really all set this year, but maybe something small. How about a new purse?" And just like that, I knew I was in serious trouble. She wasn't talking about any old purse. I knew right away that she wasn't looking for me to go to the local department store and pick out a sturdy, practical accessory (fitting my price range) that would last her ten years. In her mind, when she said the word "purse," what she really meant was a specific brand name purse which was to be purchased at a specific store, for a specific price. She didn't have to say was understood.

Are you paying for the Education, the Degree, or the Brand?

Whenever I talk to students about where they want to go to college, I often feel that they think about the school selection process the same way my wife thought about her purse that year. For them, it really isn't about the actual product. It's about the label. I came across a fascinating article recently that talks about this very issue. Does the "brand" of the school we attend matter, as long as the education is solid? Is it possible to get a great education from a "no-name" or "anonymous" school? In today's economy, what is more important, what we know, or where we learn it? And is it possible that we are paying more for the label than the product itself? Now before anyone gets riled up about this, let me just say that I have a GREAT deal of loyalty to the schools I attended, both at the undergraduate and graduate level.
Like many of you, I believe in "school spirit" and showing pride in the institutions that helped shape who I am today. I would never suggest that the name of your alma mater should not matter to you on a personal level. But as tuition costs continue to rise each year (The OECD's annual "Education at a Glance" report states that the US is the second most expensive country in terms of tuition rates), we need to start asking ourselves how much we are willing to pay for "labels." Can a community college or state school provide the same type of education that a private school can? Is a final degree worth the same if the student starts off at a lesser known (and lesser priced) institution to do pre-requisite and general education coursework?

How Will You Value Your Education?

In my opinion, the answer to both questions is a resounding "YES."  We pursue higher education to gain knowledge, and in essence, become "smarter." So purely from an educational standpoint, I wonder what is so "smart" about spending upwards of $150-200K (much of which turns out to be long-term debt), just to get a label, if that same knowledge is available elsewhere, at a lower price. When I was a senior in high school, I remember waiting on pins and needles each day for the mail to arrive, hoping it would be an acceptance letter from a school that I wanted to attend. And when those letters came, the first thing I would look for was the college name was on the upper left hand corner of the envelope. 

At that point in my life, it was all about the prestige associated with a label. Like many of you, I cherish the experiences I had in college, the friendships I made, and the education I received. I wouldn't trade those things for the world. But I also recognize the fact that a lot has changed since I was in school. Students today will not be graduating into the same great economy that I did, in the middle of a lucrative dot-com craze. Moreover, they will be paying a lot more than I did for the experiences they have.

Setting Priorities With Smart Guidance

So at the end of the day, it just comes down to priorities. Here at EdAssist, our team of Educational and College Finance Advisors work with thousands of adult learners every year, helping them find the right balance between cost, brand, modality, program, and a number of other factors. Some absolutely want to pay for the "label" and have every right to do so.  Others simply want to make sure they obtain the right skill-set, regardless of where it is from so they can advance in their careers.

Our job as advisors is to help the employees of our corporate clients understand the issues, but ultimately let them to make their own decisions. There is nothing wrong with paying for labels. Sometimes it makes sense. But the thing to remember is that like most other things in life, it comes down to choice. It may pay off, or it may not. There are arguments for both sides, and it is up to the student to decide for themselves. Oh, and in case you were wondering... I ended up buying my wife that purse for her birthday.  

So yes, after all that, I did pay for a label. But in that particular case, I probably would have
paid much more if I didn't!
Bright Horizons
About the Author
Bright Horizons
Bright Horizons
In 1986, our founders saw that child care was an enormous obstacle for working parents. On-site centers became one way we responded to help employees – and organizations -- work better. Today we offer child care, elder care, and help for education and careers -- tools used by more than 1,000 of the world’s top employers and that power many of the world's best brands

Subscribe to the On the Horizon Newsletter