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ACT Scores and Good Public vs. Elite Private Colleges

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In a recent guest post for the College Solution, we showed how Indiana University has a simple automatic scholarship system to attract top students that might otherwise choose more highly ranked schools.  This system is based on an assessment of GPA and ACT score.  For certain students, it provides an automatic $11,000 per year scholarship, making IU much more affordable than it otherwise would be.  So, I argued that, even if you already have a high ACT score, it could make sense to hire an ACT tutor and try to squeeze out another point, which would bump you into the $11,000 automatic scholarship range, and may impact which school you choose to attend.

In this post, with the implications of part 1 in mind (i.e., significant reduction in the cost of attending IU) I’ll illustrate the potential decision faced by a high school senior from Illinois considering five schools:

  • Indiana University

  • University of Illinois

  • University of Wisconsin – Madison

  • Georgetown  University

  • Notre Dame

First, to set context, assume that this theoretical student:

  • Is from Illinois

  • Has a 3.9 GPA, a composite 32 ACT, and has been admitted to all five above schools

  • Is strongly considering majoring in business of some sort

  • Is strongly biased towards attending a better ranking, more prestigious school

  • Also cares about cost

Ranking the Schools in this Conversation

I hate college rankings.  But, so many people seem to care about them, that I think it’s fair enough to use them as a proxy for quality of education.

If you simply look at the rankings of the schools on the above list, it seems like Indiana shouldn’t really be in the conversation if you’ve been accepted to all of these schools.  However, the automatic scholarship discussed in my first post, combined with Indiana’s extremely strong business program, presents a challenge to this presumption.

Consider the below table, which compares these five schools across five dimensions:

Costs table

For this student, in general, IU is significantly less expensive, ranked relatively poorly overall, but very strongly within the business program context.

Indiana vs. Other Big Ten Options

Consider the choice to attend IU vs. University of Illinois and Wisconsin.  As an in-state student, you’d obviously choose Illinois, right?  Well, actually IU costs less for this top student because of the automatic scholarship, and the business program appears to be significantly better.  IU fares even better against Madison, because Madison costs even more.

Indiana vs. Georgetown and Notre Dame

How about IU vs. Georgetown?  Again, clearly much worse ranked overall, but now the business programs are about equal and IU has a very large cost advantage.  IU vs. Notre Dame?  Well, IU still costs a lot less, and is ranked worse overall.  But here, Notre Dame outperforms IU’s business program as well.

Certain Schools Often Offer Even More Ways to Further Reduce Cost

However, the costs we’re using above to compare are basically “new” sticker prices after the automatic scholarship, and “good but not great” schools like Indiana don’t stop there to attract top students – the bottom line cost difference is probably even larger, as there are many more scholarship opportunities designed to attract top students.  Someone with the above credentials that’s been accepted to all of these schools is probably getting several additional scholarships from IU.  Examples of additional scholarships can be found below:

I am no expert on the scholarship and financial aid policies at these five schools. 

But, after a review of the scholarships and financial aid policies at these schools, and after discussing with several college admissions consultants, it seems clear what’s going on.  Georgetown and Notre Dame are excellent schools.  They know they have well-known brands and that demand is high to get admitted.  So, they don’t need to offer a range of scholarships for top performers.

But, I believe these schools are overplaying their hand.  Do they offer a better education and more prestigious brand than a place like Indiana University? Perhaps – but only marginally so. Georgetown and Notre Dame probably don’t view good Big Ten schools as real competitors – but I think they should.

Over time, people will start to realize the extremely high quality education offered by many public schools.  Students will notice that right off the bat, the price of admission, per the above table, is $29,000 per year vs. $60,000 at Georgetown.  They will then be notified of a few other scholarships they’ve won from a place like IU, bringing the annual cost down to $20,000 (this is an assumption). 

They’ll look at the table again, and do the math - $20,000 x 4 = $80,000 to get a degree from the 16th best business program in the country or $60,000 x 4 = $240,000 to get a degree from the 14th best business program with a better overall brand (Georgetown).  That’s a lot of money.

Perhaps it’s still not an easy decision to choose IU in this situation.  But, students and parents should know that choosing a “Georgetown-like” school is effectively a decision that costs $160,000, not an obvious choice that requires little contemplation.



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