Feb 1, 2018 at 12:00am ET By Joanna Hughes

The high cost of higher education is a major concern for many students and their families. But just how much does cost weight into the decision-making process when graduate students are choosing between schools? A recent report by student loan provider Sallie Mae sheds interesting new light on the subject. And the findings may surprise you. Just 12 percent of students put cost first when selecting a graduate school. The rest put a premium on reputational factors, including quality and convenience. Wondering whether cost or reputation should matter most to you? Read on for a closer look at the issue.

Reputation Matters….

Let’s face it: Mere mention of a degree from a prestigious university like Harvard or Oxford can open doors. And with good reason. Most major universities have the qualifications to back up their extraordinary reputations.  

While a strong faculty is important at all levels of academic, it’s critical for graduate students. Why? Because while undergraduate studies are more general in nature, graduate studies are about specialization. Says Eagerly DC, “You want to go where the best specialists are for your particular niche. If you want to study nuclear weapons and strategic studies, figure out what two or three schools have the most renowned faculty on that subject and have the strongest programs, journals, and libraries related to that specialty. You should also be familiar with the research and publications of the key faculty in your niche and may want to reference that in your personal statement.”

Furthermore, when you opt for a “big name” school, you get more than a “big name” degree. You also gain access to the perks that go along with attending a previous school. Many of the best schools also have the best career services, alumni networks, and top rankings that can help you get ahead in your career. Whether you’re looking for a job in academia or an alternate sector, well-known schools may offer an invaluable inside edge.

One last reason to look at graduate schools with a variety of price tags? In many fields, you’ll be eligible for fellowships, assistantships and stipends which can potentially offset the cost of graduate studies to little to nothing. In other words, you may actually come out ahead by choosing a more expensive program with better funding than you would by choosing a cheaper school with less funding.

...But It’s Not the Only Thing

There’s no arguing that attending a top program at a prestigious school can set you on the path to success. But this doesn’t mean choosing the school with the flashiest name is a no-brainer.

For starters, blithely ignoring the cost issue can lead to financial struggles down the road -- especially if you’ll be graduating saddled with debt. If attending a less prestigious school means graduating debt-free, there are reasons to continue doing so. If the outlook in your area doesn’t promise a particularly lucrative salary or if you aspire to a certain lifestyle, saving money now can help you get closer to your long-term goals.

And then there’s the fit factor. Just because a school boasts a well-known name or elite reputation doesn’t mean it’s the right environment for you. Talking to faculty members and current students can help you get a better sense of a department’s unique culture. For example, is it more collaborative or independent? Do most students graduate within a certain timeline? The life of a graduate student can be very stressful. Choosing a program which best suits your personality and learning style can make your years in grad school both easier and more enjoyable.

Furthermore, it’s important to note that graduate programs often exist independently from the universities that house them.  For example, a well-known school may not shine in a particular area of study, while a smaller, lesser-known school may achieve top rankings. As one former law school admissions dean told The Gradschoolmatch Blog, “Sometimes a student chooses a graduate program based solely on the name of the institution. The student does not conduct any additional research whatsoever. It is little wonder than individuals who choose their graduate program this way are often unhappily surprised and severely disappointed.”

The takeaway? When it comes to the choice between cost and reputation, it may not be an either/or thing, as much as a matter of evaluating your individual priorities. Proposes ThoughtCo., “The best fit is a school that can provide you with a good financial package, a program that is tailored to your goals, and a school that has a comfortable atmosphere. Your decision should be based ultimately on what you are looking to gain out of graduate school. Finally, recognize that no fit will be ideal. Decide what you can and cannot live with -- and go from there.”

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.

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