I love my niece, but I hate to take her shopping with me.

Why? Because this 13-year-old fashion elitist ridicules me for my generic buying habits.

My niece snickers at me because I prefer to shop at places like Target and Wal-Mart. She chastises me for refusing to lavish my children with clothes from Baby Gap and berates me when I reach for jeans or sneakers in which the only label is a discount sticker.

My niece, like many consumers, is into brand names.

I have never let brand names drive my buying decisions, whether it's choice of clothes or choice of college, which brings me to my complaint of the week, about how some parents choose colleges.

Thousands of parents and students approach the college search by forgetting they are consumers. Price matters.

The American Council on Education surveyed people last year about how parents generally approach the college decision: Given a choice between a very good, expensive college that would require major financial sacrifices and an average, less expensive college, what should parents do?

The majority of respondents said parents should go for the bargain deal.

When the question was turned around and they were told it was their own child who was accepted in the higher-priced school, the answer changed. The majority would go straight for the brand name.

Now, when it comes to colleges, the gap between brand and plain routinely totals $20,000 per year--$80,000 over four.

And the brand name does not always mean a school is a better investment. As a matter of fact, there is a growing body of research that challenges the notion that the earning power of college graduates is greatly elevated by the more elusive and expensive schools.

Price, prestige and pedigree are the three P's that matter to too many parents and students, says Robert Zemsky, a University of Pennsylvania professor and director of the university's Institute for Research on Higher Education.

"I would like people to be better shoppers of institutions and look at the price a little sooner in the process," said Zemsky, who is putting together a consumer report that will rate schools by how their graduates perform after leaving college.

It's easy to understand why brand-name college shopping is so fashionable. If you are like me, I know you don't want your babies to be living off you for the rest of your life, so you want them to get the best education possible. There has been plenty of anecdotal, as well as scholarly, evidence that attending elite schools is the surest road to prosperity.

But now, thankfully, there's some counter-evidence that supports discount college shopping too.

Most recently, a study by Alan B. Krueger of Princeton University and Stacy Berg Dale, a researcher at Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, found that while students who attended selective schools do well after graduation, so do students who attended less-selective schools. The critical issue, the study says, is not so much the school as the student.

Ernest Pascarella, the Petersen professor of higher education at the University of Iowa, is updating his earlier research that found that selective and pricey schools aren't necessarily the deciding factor in helping students make big bucks after graduation.

"I have a problem with the research that suggests students who go to selective schools make more money," Pascarella said. "I don't think those studies take into account the ambition of the students. The kinds of aspirations that might get them into an Ivy League school are the same kind of skills that would help them become a doctor at almost any school they attend."

Pascarella said preliminary findings show that graduates of brand-name schools do earn more money but that people are overestimating the extent to which that is related to the institution attended, as opposed to the quality of the student.

"The world won't end if your kid doesn't go to an Ivy League School," Pascarella said. "There are an awful lot of schools in the public sector where you can save a lot of money and where you don't have to go into a lot of debt. If your kid is bright and motivated, they are going to do just as well."

Michelle Singletary's column appears in this section every Sunday. While she welcomes comments and column ideas, she cannot offer specific personal financial advice. Her e-mail address is singletarym@ washpost.com. Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

What They Pay

A survey shows that just over half of full-time undergraduate students at four-year colleges will pay less than $4,000 in tuition and fees for 1999-2000.

Percent of students who will pay:

$20,000 and over 7.2%

$16,000 to $19,999 6.7

$12,000 to $15,999 8.2

$8,000 to $11,999 6.1

$4,000 to $7,999 20.8

Under $4,000 50.9

Included are all institutions providing firm or projected 1999-2000 tuition and fees by Sept. 1, 1999. Full-time fall 1999 enrollment at these public and private four-year institutions was 5,222,774.

SOURCE: College Board