Going to a top college not that important
28 November 2015, Nirapad News: For the kind of student who stresses over Ivy League college applications, economists have some good news: Attending an “elite” institution probably won’t have much impact on your future earnings.
The best research on this subject comes from Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger, who have shown that after controlling for individual ability, the selectivity of your alma mater doesn’t particularly matter. Their work, which has been widely publicized, has also been somewhat misunderstood, according to the Washington Post.
At first glance, the data analyzed by Dale and Krueger shows a clear advantage to attending a top college like Yale or Williams. Between students with similar SAT scores and GPAs, the ones who end up at more selective institutions earn more after graduation on average.
But that’s because SAT scores and GPAs give an incomplete picture of a student’s potential. It’s hard to measure things like grit, or creativity — or intelligence that’s literally off-the-charts. When elite applicants have indistinguishably sterling transcripts, top colleges have to use other information, like teacher recommendations, personal essays, and participation in extracurricular activities.
Knowing this, Dale and Krueger came at the data from a different angle. They looked at students who got into top colleges, but didn’t go. These students didn’t seem to suffer by attending less-selective schools. Apparently, an acceptance letter from Stanford was as good as attending Stanford.
Here’s where it gets stranger. Upon further investigation, Dale and Krueger found that it didn’t even matter much what schools students got into. Just knowing the kinds of schools that students appliedto was sufficient to predict how much they would later earn, given their GPAs, SAT scores and demographic data.
From Dale and Krueger’s research we might draw two conclusions. First: People follow predictable paths, and you can learn a lot about them just from a snapshot of their lives halfway through their senior year in high school. Second: It’s not clear whether going to a fancy college actually makes much of a difference to your earning power (at least for white students, but we’ll get to that caveat in a bit)