An Ivy League Education: Money Wasted or Money Well Spent?

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Maybe going to an Ivy League school was worth it decades ago. But today, some are calling into question degrees from elite schools.

You’ve heard the advice ad nauseum: An education is an investment in your future. But as we all should know, some investments pay off better than others.

High school seniors and their families make the decision as to which college the student will attend, obviously. In the past, more often than not this decision boiled down to waiting to see which schools admitted the student, then selecting the one with the best reputation. So in a way, the decision was pretty much made by the university admissions offices as much as it was by the student and his or her family. The consensus had it that the smart choice was to go with the best school, regardless of price.

(MORE: College Grads Face Record-High Debt in the Age of Record-High Unemployment)

Now, however, with a horrendous job market for new grads and student loan debt piling up by the billions, the decision-making process has changed. The college-selection equation today is not unlike shopping for a new car, with some consumers preferring a flashy, eye-catching model, and others seeing more value in a dependable, unexciting product that is cheaper to pay off, and that still gets you where you need to go.

Continuing with this metaphor, what we’re seeing is that more students are going with the Honda Civics of higher education, rather than the Porsches and Corvettes. The Wall Street Journal reports on the trend for students to not only question the value of an Ivy League education, but to attend cheaper (or free) public colleges even though they were admitted to much “better” institutions.

This isn’t simply a matter of students and their families being entirely too poor to pay for the Cornells and Browns out there. Rather, it looks like many families have looked over the numbers and decided that state school tuition frequently offers better bang for the buck. The Journal reports that during the 2010-2011 academic year, 22% of well-off students—from families with at least $100K of annual household income—went to two-year public schools, compared to just 12% the year before.

Figuring out which college represents the best investment is a subjective, enormously complicated matter, however. Not only the institution, but the choice of major and the personality and ambition of the student must be factored in.

(GALLERY: The 20 Colleges With the Most (and Least) Student Debt)

Also, the comparison of the college choice to a buying a new car is admittedly a seriously flawed metaphor. Cars are generally horrible investments. All cars depreciate as they get older, but a degree from a good university can keep paying off years down the road.

Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are among the most expensive universities in the country, yet their graduates are among the five colleges with the least student debt. This is the case primarily because grads of these institutions find good jobs and make enough money to pay their loans back. In other words: Degrees from these institutions are terrific values in the long run, even if they cost a pretty penny upfront.

Brad Tuttle is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @bradrtuttle. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.