Many American colleges and universities have very high tuition fees, in particular at prestigious universities. For example, Harvard University in 2014-2015 is US$43,938 for tuition and US$58,607 for tuition, room, board and fees combined. Not coincidentally, the total US study debt is currently US$1.34 * 1012 and growing.

Many European universities have very low or no tuition fees, but their degrees are by no means worthless. To consider an arbitrary ranking, consider the list of Nobel laureates by university affiliation: tuition fees in the top ranking institution range from $0 to $50,000+. Personally, I am a post-doc at a reasonably well-known north-American university. I paid several 1000€ for my Bachelor's degree, 0$ for my Master's degree, yet I work along people who have likely paid far more. Have those co-workers wasted money? Or, to formulate the question more precisely:

Among high-ranking research universities, do those with high tuition fees perform significantly better than those with low or no tuition fees? Do their alumni fare better? “Better” may be measured by: current research output (high-impact papers published), number of winners of the Nobel prize, Fields medal, and other highly prestigious awards; and for those not staying in academia, lifetime earnings of alumni, or other measures. This should be possible to investigate

  • Maybe this question is of interest to folks at Economics as well.
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 21:01
  • Just a suggestion: We have economics tag on site, please use it if it is relevant to your question.
    – enthu
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 21:21
  • 2
    It should be noted that while the tuition for Harvard is huge, not everyone actually pays that much. If anything, the sort of folks likely to win the Nobel prize or other awards are the sorts who are likely to get full scholarships wherever they want to go.
    – Telastyn
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 21:59
  • @EnthusiasticStudent That seems to be more about the study/research of economics as a field, rather than the economics of academia itself.
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 22:37
  • @Telastyn That is so. I have never studied exactly how those scholarships work, i.e. how much is donation, how much a donation conditional upon successful completion, how much a (subsidised) loan. I'm making the silent assumption that study debts in North America are significantly higher than in low-tuition countries in Europe, but I have no evidence that this is indeed the case. If higher tuition is offset by higher (and more competitive) scholarships, then maybe study debts correlate less with tuition fees than I might think.
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 22:45

1 Answer 1


High cost and high quality are not related in the United States.

First, remember that there is a large fixed base cost of room and board, which amounts to around $10K-$15K, depending on location. Just a quick glance at a few top schools will show that the cost of tuition beyond that is correlated primarily with state-run vs. private rather than quality:

  • Harvard: $43,938
  • MIT: $43,720
  • Berkeley: $12,972
  • University of Michigan: $13,977 (in-state)

Also, remember that many of the high-priced colleges do need-based rather than merit-based financial aid, so these numbers should be seen as a "ceiling" rather than an expected price: even a super-genius will pay based on what their parents make, rather than based on how smart they are. That same Harvard article linked in the original post notes:

During the 2012-2013 academic year, students from families with incomes below $65,000, and with assets typical for that income level, will generally pay nothing toward the cost of attending Harvard College. Families with incomes between $65,000 and $150,000 will contribute from 0 to 10 percent of income, depending on individual circumstances. Significant financial aid also is available for families above those income ranges.

Thus, even at a super-expensive place like Harvard, the cost of education is completely uncorrelated with its quality.

  • Interesting, but doesn't really address the core of my question. (1) How do you assess the quality of those institutes? (2) I can see the link between need-based/merit-based scholarship and education quality only if quality of education is measured by the quality of the students. That's a different discussion. (3) I don't think value of degree = quality of education. Perhaps some expensive institute has OK education, but excellent reputation and networking opportunities. Or a place in rural Anatolia has amazingly good teachers, but no-one knows the place, so the degree value is reduced.
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 23:24
  • 1
    Toward (1) and (3): All of the places that I listed are widely recognized as giving high-value degrees in science and engineering fields. You can use whatever metric you feel like, and they'll all come up near the top. Toward (2), I don't understand your point?
    – jakebeal
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 23:30
  • I don't challenge that they all give high-value degrees. But do you mean they're all in practice of roughly equal (high) value? I think we need more data points than four top-ranking universities to answer my question. Toward (2), what I meant is that I don't understand why you brought up scholarship criteria at all — how is this related to the price/value-correlation question?
    – gerrit
    Commented Feb 11, 2015 at 23:47
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    Please feel free to extend the dataset: what you will see is that, for science and engineering at least, there is no correlation; I just picked some obvious examples. As for scholarships: the reason I brought it up is that it affects the de facto cost, pertaining to you question about wasting money.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 2:08
  • This is interesting. So why put such a high sticker price on it if it will be discounted anyway? I can't imagine that, if there are significant aid packages at above $150k, that there are many people who qualify for the full rate. Is it really worth putting such a high price up if only a tiny fraction of the students will pay that much?
    – JP Janet
    Commented Feb 12, 2015 at 6:37

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