Selective schools also seem to make a difference in the lives of minorities and students whose parents have no college education. A 2017 study led by the economist Raj Chetty found that lower-income students at an elite school such as Columbia University have a “much higher chance of reaching the [top 1 percent] of the earnings distribution” than those at an excellent public university, such as SUNY Stony Brook in Long Island.
Why would elite institutions be so good at improving upward mobility for minorities, but not for their whiter, richer peers? After all, they’re listening to the same professors, sitting in the same chairs, and taking the same tests. But remember, college isn’t just about instruction. It’s also about alumni networks and signaling effects. Kids from rich families often rely on help from their parents to obtain selective internships and high-paying entry-level jobs. For kids without plugged-in parents, elite colleges are the plug that connect these students to the most dynamic industries and jobs: In loco rich parentis.
Read: The dueling deities of Harvard
The simplest answer to the question “Do elite colleges matter?” is: It depends on who you are. In the big picture, elite colleges don’t seem to do much extra for rich white guys. But if you’re not rich, not white, or not a guy, the elite-college effect is huge. It increases earnings for minorities and low-income students, and it encourages women to delay marriage and work more, even though it doesn’t raise their per-hour wages.
These findings send three different messages to three different parties.
First, to high-strung affluent parents, well-compensated counselors, and other members of the elite-admissions industrial complex: Just relax, okay? You are inflicting on American teenagers a ludicrous amount of pointless anxiety. Even if you subscribe to the dubious idea that young people ought to maximize for vocational prestige and income, the research suggests that elite colleges are not critical to achieving those ends. In the aggregate, individual characteristics swamp institutional characteristics. It’s more important to be hardworking and curious than to receive a certain thick envelope.
Second, to academics researching the benefits of college: Keep working. The robust debate over the benefits of attending an elite college lives concentrically within a larger conversation about whether college is worth it in the first place. It’s critical—to not only the country’s economic future, but hundreds of millions of individual Americans’ futures—that we learn more about how and why college matters, so that it can help the right people.
Third, to admissions officers of elite colleges: Do better. America’s most selective colleges can, it seems, change the lives of minorities and low-income students. But they’re still bastions of privilege. They enroll more students from the top 1 percent of the income scale than the entire bottom 60 percent. In this way, elite institutions are like factories of social mobility being used as storage facilities for privilege; they have the potential to use their space to manufacture opportunity at scale, but mostly they clear out real estate for the already rich, who are going to be fine, anyway. In America today, high-income parents are desperate to find the right colleges for their kids. It should be the opposite: The highest-income colleges should be desperate to find the right kids for their seats.