Does the College You Graduate From Really Matter?

NYU’s acceptance rate has been at a historical low of 16%. With each year and each class, competition to receive coveted acceptance letters only intensifies. As we’ve seen in the recent college scandal news, students and parents place an immense value in attaining higher education, especially from elite schools and colleges. But is this all necessary? Is a degree from the top school really worth all the hours of stress, sleepless nights, innumerable extracurriculars, and a hefty price tag?

It’s rational to think that a distinguished college would provide a big leg up to those who attend Harvard, Columbia, Stanford, USC and so on. These university brand signals the desirability of a student in the job market. The more prestigious a school, the greater the demand for the student’s labor and skills. In such colleges, students are bestowed with expansive alumni networks and resources that are likely unattainable from the tens of thousands of universities in the U.S. Although this logic stands, not everyone benefits to the same degree from attending the crème de la crème of universities.

The Atlantic cites a 2002 paper by economists Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger that the trajectory of a student after college is determined by their SAT score to a greater extent than their college. This means that if a smart student gets rejected from Stanford but attends San Francisco State University, they can earn the same income down the line as they would’ve in Stanford. Success, although a very subjective concept, largely depends on the student. However, there are more interesting findings to consider.

A 2018 study by economists Suqin Ge, Elliott Isaac, and Amalia Miller revealed that although selective colleges didn’t have a significant impact on long term earnings for men, attending elite colleges made a huge difference for women. Attending a school with a 100 point higher average SAT score boosted a woman’s earnings by 14%. College selectivity matters even more for married women. The logic though, probably isn’t what you think. It turns out that women who attend a more elite college delay marriage and having kids, instead they increase participation in the workforce through greater hours of work.

For minorities, elite colleges definitely make an impact too, and research backs it up. Low income students have a much higher probability of eventually belonging to the top 1%. These students leverage the connections and resources that top schools offer and land the best internships and positions. Whereas for rich, white men, elite colleges don’t make as much of a difference because without the university they could still rely on their parents for networks and a step-up. Those who don’t have affluent parents with innumerable professional relationships, use elite colleges to build their own web of people and opportunities.

There are other complications to consider. For some, the major pursued in college matters a lot. For business and engineering, a degree from an elite school can help graduates earn an average of 12% more than those who attend middle-tiered colleges. When pursuing other majors, the school doesn’t matter as much. However, for growing fields such as technology, graduates in these majors have an overall higher earning potential even if there are some discrepancies between those who attend elite colleges and those who don’t.  

Moreover, some employers care more about your skills, drive and passion than the school on your resume. Laszlo Bock, former Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google has mentioned that a lot of universities “don’t deliver on what they promise.” Instead, students “generate a ton of debt, you don’t learn the most useful things.” Although a lot of top school are feeders for top employers, this is not the case for a lot of companies and organizations.

To that end, elite colleges matter to a certain extent for specific groups of people. Future success is heavily reliant on the individual and their capabilities. However, selective schools can be an unbelievable advantage to low-income and minority groups. It’s not surprising that there are more new admits from the top 1% of the income distribution than the bottom 60%. When money isn’t a source of worry, it becomes so much more important the exclusivity of the institution for the elite. However, they are the ones who need Harvard, Stanford, and USC the least.

Elite colleges should focus less on admitting the wealthy who are already privileged enough to succeed on their own. Instead, the focus should be on students from less privileged and advantaged backgrounds.

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