Feeling Guilty You Can’t Send Junior to Yale? Don’t.

When my sister called me last spring to tell me that my niece Lauren had been accepted to an elite college, I wasn’t surprised at all. What did surprise me was the sound of worry in my sister’s voice. After what she said next, I quickly realized the cause:

It’s going to end up costing $200,000.

Lauren’s impending high-school graduation was a culmination of 18 years of high expectations. Since she was little, you could just tell that she was going places—and it’s not just because I’m a proud uncle. Had you asked any of her teachers along the way which student would end up at Princeton, I guarantee that even her kindergarten teacher would have pointed at my niece, the Cabbage Patch look-a-like who 13 years later would become the class salutatorian.

Over the weeks following the news of Lauren getting into her dream school, I spent every other evening on the phone with my sister, talking her through the endless scenarios of student loans and scholarships. Both of us wanted nothing more than to find a way to give Lauren a shot at her hard-earned reward. Despite our best efforts, however, none of the options seemed to offer anything other than a crippling amount of debt.

I watched my sister, a single mother and high-school English teacher, try absolutely everything she could to give her daughter the world. I couldn’t help but be heartbroken by her underlying tone, which implied that somehow she was less of a parent because she didn’t have a quarter of a million in the bank. I’m sure this sentiment is shared by a lot of parents struggling to pay for college. In my sister’s case, it couldn’t have been further from the truth, as evidenced by her ability to raise such an amazing daughter.

Wanting to do everything I could to help the situation, I encouraged Lauren to fly out to Boulder and at least visit University of Colorado (CU), which had offered her a full-ride scholarship. Being a graduate of rival CSU, this involved a HUGE sacrifice on my part. But, I successfully resisted breaking out into my alma matter’s fight song as I took my niece to see the CU campus.

At the end of the tour, my sacrifice was rewarded: Lauren said that she was surprised by how much she liked the school and could actually see herself going there.

After weeks of deliberation, and tears, graduation day finally came. I was beaming with pride as my niece walked across the stage to the announcement that she would be attending CU in the fall. But at the same time, I couldn’t help but feel that she’d been cheated—cheated by a system that perpetuates a cycle where only families with elite salaries are able to send their kids to elite schools.

My theory was backed up by numerous statistics showing the gap between the salaries of Ivy League graduates and those of “lowly” state schools. But that statistical gap is only half of the story…

I recently came across a study by Princeton economist Alan Krueger, which showed that students of the same aptitude end up with the same salary, regardless of their choice of school. In other words, if you’re good enough to get accepted into a “glamour school,” it doesn’t actually matter whether you go there—disproving my classist theory, but reinforcing my widely held belief that passion and ambition are far more indicative of potential success than anything else.

The study made me realize that the US News ranking of the college on Lauren’s diploma is irrelevant. It’s her enthusiasm, motivation and talent that’s going make her a success – and not just the success that comes with a pay check equal to her Ivy League counterparts, but the kind of the success on par with Walt Disney, Ross Perot & Tom Hanks (all of whom where educated at very prestigious community colleges).

So if you’re thinking about taking out that second mortgage to send Johnny to Yale, you might want to think twice.