A friend asked for advice for her son on how to choose which college to attend. Here’s my $0.02. (Note: Most of my examples are technical-related, because that’s what I know.)
The things you get from college are, from most to least important: certification, connections, and education.
Certification – many jobs in many fields require a college degree. Period. It’s proof to a hiring manager that you can follow directions for a long period of time. Without a degree, the burden of proof is on you.
Connections – at college, you meet peers, work with professors, and connect with alumni. These can be valuable connections, but only if you use them. The value of this is very school- and career-specific. For instance, every Supreme Court Justice went to either Harvard or Yale. Stanford is deeply tied to the tech entrepreneurship community, USC to filmmaking, CalTech to NASA, etc. If you know you want to enter a career that’s tightly coupled to one school, then it can be worth the cost to go there. Also, if you want to live in a certain region, then attending a big state school there gives you lots of general connections – eg if you go to Ohio State and stay in Ohio, you’ll have a connection to lots of people across society there. This goes double for careers with state certification like law and teaching.
Lastly, education. Once you’re in a decent enough school, the level of education is largely a product of what bar you set for yourself and how hard you work to achieve it. Many of the best programmers are self taught because they put in time way beyond what school would require. Top athletes, artists, etc go way beyond what you need for an A. This is available to anyone with an internet connection.
My advice to a future college student would be: if you absolutely know you want to work in a field strongly affiliated with a certain university, by all means go there and consider the cost an investment. Otherwise, if you’re going to a less specific field or don’t know what you want to do, go to the least expensive Division 1 college in the region you want to live in and spend as little money as possible until you know what you want to do. Then, use your courses as a starting point to learn as much as you can and produce as much demonstrable work as possible. Your work and knowledge aren’t limited by where you go to school, but your career choices can be limited by how much you spent on school.