The high costs of a college education and student loan debt are causing many students to think twice about pursuing a traditional 4-year degree.
According to Jamie Beaton, CEO and co-founder of Crimson Education, it's worth the challenge.
"Lots of U.S. students are aiming for, really, the top 20 to top 30," Beaton said on Yahoo Finance Live recently (video above). "These are schools that are very strong return on investment, particularly if you're thinking about careers in finance, management consulting, technology, engineering, law, medicine — these types of professions that really value degrees. If you go to these top institutions, the ROI is very strong."
Beaton penned the book "Accepted: Secrets to Gaining Admissions to the World's Top Universities," which focuses heavily on the top 50 colleges in the U.S. and how to score a college acceptance from one of them.
Why college is worth it
Education level can significantly make a difference in the real world.
According to a report from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, "those with some college education but no degree earn $1.9 million during a career, averaging $47,500," roughly 19% higher than high school graduates. Additionally, an associate's degree offers 25% more in lifetime earnings than a high school diploma while bachelor's degree garner 75% more.
"In my own experience coming from New Zealand, I had no connections to America," Beaton said. "I went to Harvard. But that opportunity unlocked jobs at places like Tiger on Wall Street. So I do think that these ultra-selective colleges do open up doors that you never normally could access, particularly from backgrounds that don't have these types of connections and are very valuable."
What does and doesn't help you stand out
Despite the immense value of a degree, the rising cost of college tuition cannot be ignored.
According to a Citizens' Annual Student Lending survey conducted last summer, approximately 70% of current college students said concerns around affordability had a moderate or high impact on 2021 enrollment plans.
However, Beaton noted that many of the top universities like Harvard, Yale, and Princeton have some of the strongest financial aid packages.
"If you're able to actually get in, they subsidize your tuition based on family's income and assets," he said. "And so actually often, these top schools make it even more affordable. And that, I guess, also helps with the return on investment along the cost basis."
To reach this step, a student needs to actually be accepted. In Beaton's book, he laid out several tips for how to stand out in the application process.
"There are a number of heavy hitting summer programs that are considered to be really selective," he said. "And if you get into them, they really boost your odds of getting into these top colleges. So one example is the MIT RSI program. This program has about 33% of its graduates ending up getting to Harvard, about 2/3 getting into the Ivy League following the program. It's a research program fully funded where you do research for about six, seven weeks over the summer. That's one really popular program. Another great example is Promise, which is a math program. And if you get into that, it's a very strong signal to colleges like Caltech and MIT that you've got fantastic mathematical ability."
Not every program is actually worth the cost, though. Programs that are more pay-to-play with no affiliation to a university "really don't help you much in your candidacy," Beaton said.
Legacy admissions — in which an applicant's parent's alumni status is factored in — also play a major role in the college acceptance process. However, Beaton described it as "a really outdated admissions process that has to go" due to its role in creating racial and economic disparities in college education.
"At this point, there's enough demand for these colleges," he said. "There's enough loyalty to these colleges post-admission, even for the first generation of kids getting in, that you don't need to have these legacy policies. Schools like Johns Hopkins have now begun to abandon legacy admissions policies, and I think that trend will continue as there's rising dislike of anything that really appears to further income inequality in America."