Elite students don’t need elite colleges

Elite college graduates earn 40 percent more than graduates of non-elite schools, but is it the chicken or the egg? Top students who go to second-tier universities do as well in life as top students who go to elite colleges, concludes research by Princeton and Mellon Foundation economists.   Only students from disadvantaged backgrounds get an edge from attending an elite school.  From the New York Times:

. . . they compared students at more selective colleges to others of “seemingly comparable ability,” based on their SAT scores and class rank, who had attended less selective schools, either by choice or because a top college rejected them.

The earnings of graduates in the two groups were about the same — perhaps shifting the ledger in favor of the less expensive, less prestigious route.

The super-elite schools tend to have large endowments and the ability to discount tuition significantly for middle-income students.  I wonder why non-wealthy students still choose second-tier and third-tier private colleges where the sticker price is close to the real price.

My stepdaughter Susie’s boyfriend works in admissions for a private, non-elite university, where he’s known for rejecting applicants who aren’t prepared to earn a degree.  Colleagues call him The Dream Crusher.  Of course, he’s also The Debt Preventer.

Update:  More on the “higher -education bubble.”

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Comments

  1. Is the purpose of going to an elite school to earn more money? Or is it to learn, build character, and make social connections?

    I’m currently homeschooling my kids. My husband is a Librarian. We both went to the University of Chicago. I’m sure we would be slightly BETTER off financially if we’re both gone to less selective schools that offered us huge scholarships.

    But are finances the only measure of well-being?

    The U of C gave us both an acute sense of our own limitations– instead of being the smartest kids in the room, we spent 4 years as ‘average, if we put in at least 40 hours a week on our studies.’ We learned to read, think and argue. Our professors had high expectations for us. We have too much to think about to ever be bored. We made friends of a similar bent, who come to dinner and talk with us and educate the children by proxy.

    We wouldn’t trade the UofC experience for anything. One COULD study the great books on his own, gather friends and mentors on the internet, and replicate the experience for less money—NOW. We couldn’t then.

    And, there’s still something to be said (I think) for living twenty four hours a day in a community that cares about the classics and ideas. Heck, even my part-time job (clerk at a used bookstore) contributed to my education, because interesting people came in and explained their research to me!

    Earnings aren’t everything. There’s a lot to be said for developing habits of thought and argument.

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Have I said how much I love and agree with so much of what Deirdre says?

    Add this thread to that list of places where I do.

    I feel the same way about Wesleyan, but I’m not going to waste electrons repeating all the things DM said about UoC.

  3. Time Magazine published a significant study of this reality years ago. If students are going to be successful, they will be successful regardless of the Ivy League or the state school. Certainly, if the elite schools are a reasonable option – financial being key – then there is no reason not to pursue the most highly competitive environment. But if Dartmouth is out of reach, great students are going to be successful coming from Southern Illinois University as well.

  4. “Success” means different things to different people. If you go to college to get the credentials which allow you present a BA when applying for an entry-level job, any degree from a respectable school will do.

    If, however, you wish to continue to hang around with eggheads, the more elite the student body, the better. If elite students want to attend elite graduate schools, then they do need elite colleges:

    Those same researchers found in a separate paper that “attendance at an elite private college significantly increases the probability of attending graduate school, and more specifically graduate school at a major research university.”

  5. When I’m in a cynical mood, I consider my alma mater (a top 5 school) to be not much more than a country club with a six-figure entrance fee. The main thing I got out of it was the social connections, not the least of it was meeting my DH. My DH, who was an engineering major, did feel that he got excellent training in that discipline. However, in order to afford the tuition, he had to do ROTC. And after 5 years in the Army, he would not have been able to work as an engineer without going back to school to pursue a graduate degree. So it was mainly useful in the connections he made, and having a suitably impressive name on his resume & MBA application.

  6. As to why an elite student might choose to attend a 2nd tier school when accepted to an elite school — well 30+ years ago when I was faced with that decision, it did boil down to finances. I had my choice of 2 full tuition and room scholarships at strong regional schools vs a small financial aid package from an Ivy (which was also my dream school) that consisted of a loan and a job. I took one of the full tuition scholarship and graduated debt free.

    It could be that some elite students may get more financial aid in the form of scholarships at the 2nd tier schools that really want them versus the elite school where they are just one of many. Those 2nd tier schools may also court them because they really want them.

    To Dierdre’s point of the value of the education — personally I feel that in many ways I got a better education at my regional school than I would have gotten at an Ivy because the focus was on teaching and not research. And my husband had a conversation last year with a professor from an elite university who told my husband that he felt his daughter had gotten every bit as good an education at a local 2nd or 3rd tier school as she would have at his elite university for similar reasons. So I think the school issue is really dependent on the schools involved.

    As to long-term impact of that decision — I’ve sometimes wondered about that but in the end I think the decisions I made post-graduate had more impact on my long term career than my college education did.

  7. As someone who teaches at a non-elite college (that offers a whole bunch of aid to our top students), I have to say that I’m not convinced you need to attend an elite college to go to an elite grad school. Students from my teeny-tiny department in my teeny-tiny school have gotten Ph.D.’s from Stanford, Yale, UC Berkeley, and U Colorado Boulder, so we do okay! They had terrific grades and great GREs, of course, but were surprisingly competitive.

  8. superdestroyer says:

    Anyone who believes that going to second tier schools has no adverse affects needs to research the term “Undermatch.” There have been several studies that have shown that students in the mountain states who could have gone to tier one private schools but settled on the state university for financial reasons graduated at lower rates, had very different careers, and earned less money.

    Moving down just a few spots on the US News college ranking lists takes careers on the table for students Students who are not in the top ten schools will never work on McKinesey no matter how sharp they are. Students outside the top few schools have such small chances of getting into the top 14 law schools that the chance is basically zero.

    If one wants to pursue a career in a log-normally distributed career field such as consulting, investment banking, or the media, one must attend a tier one university. Settling for a second tier second means settling on a normally-distributed career field.

    People have to understand that the U.S. operates on the idea that the dumbest student at Harvard is smarter than the smartest student at Georgetown and that the dumbest student at Georgetown is smarter than the smartest student at Rutgers.

  9. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Quoth Superdestroyer:
    People have to understand that the U.S. operates on the idea that the dumbest student at Harvard is smarter than the smartest student at Georgetown and that the dumbest student at Georgetown is smarter than the smartest student at Rutgers.

    Well, I think that’s grossly overstating the case; the people making the sorts of decisions you’re talking about in your posts don’t have those sorts of blinders on. But I take your point, and probably agree with it.

  10. My friend graduated from the University of Buffalo with a degree in political science and then went to Hahvad law school. He’s now a partner.

    As for consulting firms, they’re just illusion factories anyway, and we’d be better off without them.

  11. If one wants to pursue a career in a log-normally distributed career field such as consulting, investment banking, or the media, one must attend a tier one university.

    Funny, only about 1/3 of the class at my DH’s Ivy MBA program attended an elite school undergrad. They didn’t strike me as being any smarter than the rest of the class. The brightest female classmate I met was an alumna of some no-name college in West Virginia of all places.

    DH had an interview last week for an equity research position at a prestigious Wall St. firm and the guy interviewing him (who was in his mid-30′s) was an alumnus of Dickinson. The interviewer didn’t have a graduate degree, either (only a Chartered Financial Analyst designation).

  12. Have I said how much I love and agree with so much of what Deirdre says? Add this thread to that list of places where I do. I feel the same way about Wesleyan, but I’m not going to waste electrons repeating all the things DM said about UoC.