Applying to colleges is the starkest economic lesson most high school seniors learn. All of a sudden, unlimited desires (you want the best education possible) crash head-on into the reality of finite resources (you can only afford to spend so much on tuition). Some students and their parents don't even concern themselves with the latter point, borrowing whatever they need - and often taking decades to pay it off. Fortunately, there's a smarter way to go about it.

World's Finest
The Ivy League schools continue to be regarded as among the world's finest. U.S. News reinforces the point by ranking six of the eight Ivies among the 15 best colleges on earth. Alas, the Ivies are as expensive as they are illustrious. The schools' rigorous academic standards are supposed to keep garden-variety high school seniors from applying, but that still isn't discriminatory enough to restrict admission to a workable size. Instead, the colleges add a little sticker shock.
Attending an Ivy League college continues to hold enormous cachet, so much so that the schools can almost name their own prices. Harvard charges full-time students $38,480 for the upcoming academic year, Yale $33,400, and Dartmouth $43,782. That's just for tuition. Room and board are excluded, and expensive. In fact, they've outpaced inflation even more than tuition has.

The curious thing is that these schools have some of the richest endowments known to man. Harvard's is over $30 billion, enough to pay every undergraduate's tuition and still have over a more than 90% left over. Whatever rainy day Harvard administration is saving for will be a wet one indeed. On the other end of the spectrum, you can spend a few hundred dollars per semester to study at your local community college. If you do so, regardless of how stellar your grades are, you'll still lose out in any job interview to the Princeton graduate with the 2.0 grade-point average. That might not be fair, but it's life.

Optimal Tradeoff
So, what about the optimal tradeoff? Are there schools that offer a marketable education at a discount price, and what are they? They exist, and they're more plentiful (and probably closer) than you might think. Kiplinger's famous list of bargain schools distinguishes between private and public, with the University of North Carolina having led the latter category for 11 consecutive years. North Carolinians pay just $7,008 annually to attend UNC, which is followed by three other large, notable schools which include the University of Florida, the University of Virginia, and the College of William and Mary (which is also located in Virginia). Tuition for residents remains in the high four-digit range.

What if you're not a resident of the state in question, and can't take advantage of the low tuition such residents enjoy? You can always save money by studying abroad. Which sounds counterintuitive, but isn't. For generations, its been common practice for Americans in the northern reaches of the lower 48 to pack up and move to a particular foreign country to study. Canadian universities are some of the biggest bargains in education for American students. Granted, Canadian taxpayers subsidize their nation's tertiary education system, but that's of little concern to the New Yorker who can choose between paying $27,045 a year at Cornell or barely half that across the Quebec border at the comparably respected McGill. The former's alumni includes nine Nobel Laureates in the hard sciences while the latter's include seven, a quick-and-dirty measure to approximate a college's academic reputation.

Still, even the $14,000 annual tuition at McGill might cause some incoming American students to balk. The good news is that there's one group of U.S. colleges that's not only universally recognized for academic and leadership excellence, but whose tuition prices can't be beat: 0. What's more, each of these schools promises every incoming freshman a prestigious job upon graduation.

Service Academies
These zero-cost education institutions would be the service academies, which include the United States Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.; the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.; and the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. The big three academies also have two lesser-known counterparts, the United States Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn. and the United States Merchant Marine Academy in Kings Point, N.Y.

Supply, demand and the lure of free tuition would seem to dictate that the service academies would be overwhelmed with applications each year. And they are, but that's not how the admissions procedure works. Instead, each prospective student requires a letter of recommendation from his or her congressman or senator. Nor do the academies accept transfer students. Well, you can apply after you've studied elsewhere, but your credits won't count. For the agreeable admission price, students are subjected to a notoriously rigorous and disciplined life. Extracurricular activities are mandatory (to say nothing of early morning reveille), as is a five-year commitment upon matriculation. Graduates of each service academy receive a commission in their particular branch, and are virtually certain to impress any subsequent civilian employer.

The Bottom Line
Education is one of the few goods with such a variable range of prices. A four-year degree at one university can be several orders of magnitude more expensive than a similar education at a less-heralded school. A smart high school senior will do his or her homework before committing to a school and its price tag. In fact, that's almost the very definition of a smart high school senior.

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