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Does it matter where you go to college?

February 18, 2019 :: Alex Collazo

An admissions consultant’s life can be a bit hectic, especially around deadline season. We and our clients are all single-mindedly focused on one goal: getting those admits.

It’s a good mindset, a necessary one if you hope to beat the odds at a school like Harvard, Stanford or Columbia. But from time to time, it’s a good idea to step back and ask: Is this worth it? Does it matter where you go to college?

This is the question Derek Thompson recently tackled over at the Atlantic. Thompson reviewed a few recent studies which challenge some long-held assumptions about the value of high-end colleges and provide an important perspective for the internet forums where high school seniors feverishly guess at each other’s chances. For females, minority or not-rich applicants, the new data undermine some of the trendy recent think pieces questioning the financial wisdom of Ivy plus schools. An elite education will on average bump a woman’s lifetime earnings by 14%, for example, more than making up for the higher costs. Other researchers found even greater effects for low- to middle-income and minority students. Put simply:

If you need student loans to pay for an elite education, it’s probably going to be worth it.

However, for the most privileged applicants, the people most likely to pay full price anyway, the picture is a bit more complicated. The research suggests that a high-end education might not change these students’ future earnings, but does that mean that in some cases a student should choose a lower-ranked program over a higher-ranked one?

Here’s the rub: While education policy makers, governments and political reporters are interested first and foremost in whether college is a good financial investment, I would argue that’s not what should matter most to an individual. An 18-year-old applying to colleges has some internal potential, some starting “grit” or “ambition” that these researchers are trying to quantify and correct for so that they can compare institutional outcomes. But the relevant question for that teenager is not “how much money will my average classmate be making fifty years from now,” but “how can I maximize my individual potential?” Not earning potential, potential. Full stop.

This concept encompasses much more than income. First, there’s the actual instruction itself—the professors and researchers a student will work with on campus. I’m dubious of the effect “an institution” actually has in the classroom. In a world where wannabe Ph.D.s far outnumber Ph.D. candidate openings, and PhD holders far outnumber professorships, the quality of education in U.S. colleges is high across the board. The upper rungs of U.S. academia make undergraduate applications look like a cakewalk, with acceptance rates for funded PhD programs routinely in the low single digits. Combined with digitized journals and archives that can be cheaply shared between universities, this means that the quality of the education you get at a “lower-ranked” university is closer to that of the Ivy League than many may think.

However, I’d argue that classroom instruction is actually far from the most important thing. It’s the people who share that classroom (and the dorms, and the extracurriculars, and the late night conversations) with who matter most. Your peers are the special sauce that makes college life-changing. Elite schools try to sell this idea a bunch of different ways, saying things like “our class is more diverse than at lower-ranked schools!” This is usually true by some metrics (like number of countries represented), but not others (like economic diversity). The magic here can’t really be captured by the demographic information in a class profile. Here’s what really matters:

At an elite college, your peers all had to fight HARD to be there.

Motivation. That’s it. Not everyone in a Yale classroom is going to be paying attention all the time, but the percentage is going to be higher—much higher—than it would at a school 20 slots down the rankings. A 2017 study by Raj Chetty quantified this effect, showing how lower income students at elite universities are able to get selective jobs that very similar students at a lower-tier university can’t (unless they had rich parents). By concentrating motivated, ambitious teenagers in one community, elite universities encourage a sort of “enrichment through osmosis” that allows students of all types to pick up the life skills of successful people.

Finally, while academics at an elite university and a big state school might not be as different as the price tags suggest, the extracurriculars certainly are. A school with an endowment larger than some countries’ budgets and a student body that is 60% scions of the one percent (the average for elite universities) is going to have far more bells and whistles than one that has to fight state legislators for every cent. This means more study abroad opportunities, bigger budgets for student groups, even better food! At the very upper crust, some Ivy League institutions still retain some old-world finishing school characteristics: Ever wanted to learn how to sail a yacht? To ski? To ride a horse? Ivy league grads at Admissionado did all of these things and more. It’s not quite the Oxbridge-style country club experience, but you’re definitely getting something for all that money.

At Admissionado our default advice has long been that students should go to the best school they can get into. These new studies help explain why. If you’re not, rich, white and male, you’ll make up for the higher price of an elite school with a higher future salary. And if you are those things, well… what’s all that money for if not to spend four years with some of the world’s best and brightest?


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