It's a familiar scene, a high school student anxiously opening an email or letter that hopefully contains good news: admission to his or her college of choice. The ritual has become a recognizable part of American culture, one that plays out in movies and hyper-emotional commercials. Economists agree that going to college matters a lot for future earnings. But does the sender of that envelope matter?
That depends—for certain majors, going to a top-tier institution is invaluable. But for many career paths, it just doesn't matter where a person got his or her education, according to a recent study from Eric Eide and Mark Showalter of Brigham Young University and Michael Hilmer of San Diego State University. The researchers compared the earnings of individuals from schools with different selectivity rankings, controlling for their majors and their levels of degree attainment (e.g., those with solely bachelor's degrees were compared with other's with solely bachelor's degrees) 10 years after they completed undergrad.
According to their results, school choice matters the most for business majors. Those who attended top schools earn 12 percent more than their peers who went to schools that were in the middle of the pack. And grads from those mid-tier institutions earned 6 percent more than their peers who went to the least-selective schools. For social science and education majors there was also a significant boost that came from attending a better-ranked school.
For certain majors, going to a top-tier institution is invaluable. But for many career paths, it just doesn't matter where a person got his or her education.
By contrast, engineers who went to the most selective schools enjoyed only a marginal earnings benefit over their peers at mid-tier institutions. And while humanities majors at the most elite schools enjoyed higher earnings than peers at the least selective schools, there was virtually no difference between top-tier and mid-tier earnings. For science majors, the prestige of a school mattered least of all. The authors found that the sciences exhibited the "statistically weakest earnings differences for a given major across college selectivity types."