09/29/2014 10:00 pm ET Updated Nov 29, 2014

When Less Is More: A Closer Look at Higher Education

Hundreds of thousands of high school seniors will apply to college this year, in hopes of being accepted by their first choice. However, is the higher monetary cost of a more elite university worth the added sticker price? Perhaps even more important, does a more elite school offer its graduates better job prospecting benefits than a less expensive, second-tier school? According to author Malcolm Gladwell in his newest book David and Goliath, the answer is: perhaps not.

A Big Fish In a Small Pond

Gladwell argues that even the brightest students can stumble when competing with the top one percent of high school graduates at the nation's most prestigious universities. He offers Caroline Sacks (a pseudonym) as an example. A bright student, Sacks graduated at the top of her high school class but then stumbled as a freshman science major at the academically rigorous Brown University. Eventually Sacks was unable to keep pace with her peers and, much to her disappointment, changed her course of study.

It's not that Sacks wasn't a gifted science student, explains Gladwell. She'd simply overshot her best interests. Gladwell suggests Sacks would have succeeded academically at what had been her second choice school, the second-tier University of Maryland. There, Gladwell explains, she would have been a big fish in a small pond. She would have been at the top of her class and that alone would have opened up opportunities that weren't available to her at highly competitive Brown University.

According to Gladwell, it's not quantitative progress that affects how we see ourselves; instead, it's our progress relative to our peers. He even goes so far as to say that the worst STEM majors at Harvard University would likely be in the top third of their class at a lower ranked college like, say, University of Maryland.

Then There's the Money

Of course, where we study is about more than the academics. Higher education has a price tag, and it's overwhelmingly huge for many families. Future students would be well served by taking a serious look at the advantages to be gained from an elite (and typically pricier) education. In short, is the extra cost worth the added benefit?

Assuming Sacks is not a resident of Maryland, the cost of annual tuition alone (not including room, board, or fees) is $18,503 more at Brown University than at University of Maryland, assuming no scholarship or merit-based aid. It tuition remains the same for four years (although it's almost certain it will rise), the four year tuition difference adds up to a staggering $74,000. The question then is this: is the education one would receive at Brown University $74,000 better than the education one would receive at second-tier University of Maryland?

It may oppose the conventional logic but, according to Gladwell, many students may be better suited at a lower ranked college, where they can be the big fish in a smaller pond.

"The big fish/little pond option might be scorned by some on the outside but small ponds are welcoming places for those on the inside," writes Gladwell. "They have all the support that comes from community and friendship and they are places where innovation and individuality are not frowned upon."

States With Highest Average Student Debt - TICAS - Class Of 2012