This year, more than 2 million Americans will apply to college. Most will aim for nearby schools without global brands or billion-dollar endowments. But for the tens of thousands of families applying to America’s most elite institutions, the admissions process is a high-cost, high-stress gantlet.
American parents now spend almost half a billion dollars each year on “independent education consultants,” and that’s not counting the cost of test prep or flights and hotels for campus visits. These collegiate sweepstakes leave a trail of frazzled parents and emotionally wrecked teens already burdened with rising anxiety, which raises a big question: Does it really matter whether you attend an elite college?
The seemingly obvious answer is, Of course it matters! How could it not? Ivy League and equivalent institutions provide more than world-class instruction. They confer a lifetime of assistance from prodigiously connected alumni and a message to all future employers that you’re a rarified talent. College isn’t just an education; it’s a network, a signal, and an identity. Elite schools seem disproportionately responsible for minting the American elite. About 45 percent of America’s billionaires and more than half of Forbes’s list of the most powerful people attended schools where incoming freshmen average in the top first percentile of SAT scores.
But what appears obvious may not be true. In November 2002, the Quarterly Journal of Economics published a landmark paper by the economists Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger that reached a startling conclusion. For most students, the salary boost from going to a super-selective school is “generally indistinguishable from zero” after adjusting for student characteristics, such as test scores. In other words, if Mike and Drew have the same SAT scores and apply to the same colleges, but Mike gets into Harvard and Drew doesn’t, they can still expect to earn the same income throughout their careers. Despite Harvard’s international fame and energetic alumni outreach, somebody like Mike would not experience an observable “Harvard effect.” Dale and Krueger even found that the average SAT scores of all the schools a student applies to is a more powerful predictor of success than the school that student actually attends.
This finding suggests that the talents and ambitions of individual students are worth more than the resources and renown of elite schools. Or, less academically, the person you’re becoming at 18 is a better predictor of your future success than the school you graduate from at 22. The takeaway here: Stress out about your habits and chill out about college.
That’s kind of inspiring. It also implies that all the angst and time devoted to the infamous admissions process is a wasteful pageant for the vast majority of its participants. Could that really be true? Or were Dale and Krueger off somehow?
This month, economists from Virginia Tech, Tulane, and the University of Virginia published a new study that reexamines the data in the Dale-Krueger study. Among men, the new study found no relationship between college selectivity and long-term earnings. But for women, “attending a school with a 100-point higher average SAT score” increased earnings by 14 percent and reduced marriage by 4 percent. That is a huge effect. Has one of the most famous papers in education economics been debunked?
Not quite, says Amalia Miller, a co-author and an economist at the University of Virginia. “The difference we found is that college selectivity does seem to matter, especially for married women, by raising earnings almost entirely through the channel of increased labor force participation,” she says.
If you’re not an economist, that might sound complicated. But it’s pretty simple. For the vast majority of women, the benefit of going to an elite college isn’t higher per-hour wages. It’s more hours of work. Women who graduate from elite schools delay marriage, delay having kids, and stay in the workforce longer than similar women who graduate from less-selective schools.
This finding complicates the trendy “opting out” theory, which says that women who graduate from top schools are particularly likely to drop out of the labor force after they have children. In fact, the only gender-specific effect of attending elite colleges is that female graduates are more career-focused.
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.
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.
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