First a definition of terms. Words mean different things to different people. So
I am going to answer this question for those students or parents who are asking about the
most elite schools in our country.
Over time I've developed a proprietary guideline to help me in deciding whether a student should seek candidacy at an elite school. Elite schools to me would be, for example; the eight (8) Ivy League schools or their reputational equivalent; (presidents 568 group, former seven sisters, etc etc.) Without going into the details, this guideline focuses on two
(2) characteristics: (1) Intellectual Curiosity and (2) Drive. If a student is in the "upper
quadrant" of BOTH IC and Drive then I think an undergraduate degree from an elite school would probably be a wise investment.
Otherwise, I think MOST STUDENTS should keep their powder dry, save their money, and
try to use their God-given talents to get into one of the other thousand schools which WILL GIVE THEM A MERIT AWARD. The family can then strategize on going to an ELITE INSTITUTION later for graduate school or professional school.
A few groups beside my so-called "upper quadrant" which MAY ALSO benefit from an undergraduate degree from an elite instituion, are (not in any particular order):
(1) underrepresented minorities, (2) athletes, (3) legacies, and (4) children of the very wealthy. Underrepresented minorities will probably be judged from a different set of standards. If they can attend and graduate from an elite institution, they should take advantage of this coveted opportunity. (2) The same goes for athletes. No institution is going to admit that the academic "bar" would be lowered for an athlete, but in some cases this will happen. I've seen 17 year olds turn down an opportunity to go to an elite college, so they could play at a "higher level" of division I. Any high school counselor or parent that encourages this behavior is in need of some serious psychiatric counseling themselves. Honestly, 6 years from now do you think your daughter is going to the WNBA or that your son is going to play professional lacrosse??? Wake up!!! You need to be using your talents to be getting the best education you can get. (3) Ditto for legacies. They might be getting a slight statistical break and if they're family can well afford it, then they should consider taking it. (4) Finally the rich. Although I've known some very AFFLUENT parents who wanted the biggest merit awards their students could bring home, most elite schools have NO MERIT MONEY. A few have athletic money-- if they are a DIV I or II (non-IVY) school. If a family has enough money not to worry about money, then an elite school for undergraduate studies could give them a leg up later in the job market.
Again, MOST bright, above average students can get an excellent education at any number of small private schools of the arts and sciences and have the schools award them merit money while they get a four (4) year diploma in four (4) years, and THEN
they will be in the competitive and highly enviable position of being a low-debt candidate at an elite institution for graduate studies.