College and University Blog

Elite Colleges: Prestigious School, Bigger Paycheck? Maybe Not.

Even in this day and age, a lot of parents truly believe that students who attend Ivy League colleges (or prestigious equivalents) will somehow lead a better life than students who are forced to settle for an “inferior” school. They decide that the exorbitant tuition and fees are worthwhile, that the cost will make up for itself with a lifetime of success.

Studies Find Surprising Salary Predictors

Nearly ten years ago, economists Alan Krueger and Stacy Dale conducted a now-famous study which found that Ivy League graduates didn’t enjoy an earnings advantage monopoly, reports Lynn O’Shaughnessy for US News and World Report. Although Krueger and Dale learned that graduates of elite schools like Swarthmore College and University of Pennsylvania earned higher salaries than students who attended less selective schools, they also concluded that students who were accepted to elite colleges but opted to attend less selective institutions earned salaries just as high as Ivy League grads. For example, explained O’Shaughnessy, if a teenager was accepted to Harvard but attended Penn State, his or her salary prospects would be the same.

Dale and Krueger’s latest study, Estimating the Return to College Selectivity over the Career Using Administrative Earning Data, found that a more accurate earnings predictor was the average SAT scores of the most selective school a teenager applied to— not the average scores of the college the student actually attended. “Even applying to a school, even if you get rejected, says a lot about you,” Krueger told David Leonhardt of the New York Times.

It’s important to note that a few groups didn’t fit the pattern mentioned above: black students, Latino students, low-income students and students whose parents did not graduate from college. “For them, attending a more selective school increased earnings significantly,” Kruger said, suggesting those groups of students benefited from professional connections they would not otherwise have. They may acquire habits or skills that middle-class and affluent students already acquired in high school or at home.

Why Do Students Want to Go to Elite Colleges?

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, applications for the class of 2015 at elite colleges are soaring. Harvard, Penn, Northwestern, Duke and Stanford have all seen a dramatic increase in applications. In the past five years, applications at Northwestern have almost doubled.

In his Chronicle opinion column, Richard Vedder speculated that more and more students are attempting to attend such prestigious colleges despite the sluggish economy in order to separate themselves from the crowd.

A lot of college graduates are being forced to take “ordinary” jobs that characteristically don’t require degrees, therefore declining the value of a college degree. Vedder believes that employers who once considered college graduates similar no matter where they went to school are now screening applicants by the quality of the school they attended.

“My Kid Got into a Better College than Yours!”

Earnings studies and hiring statistics aside, some teenagers get their hearts set on Ivy League schools because their parents have pushed them their entire lives.

The Atlantic contributor Daniel Indiviglio summed it up quite nicely when he described Amity Shlaes’ article Harvard Isn’t Worth It Beyond Mom’s Party Chatter: “The biggest reward from a fat envelope from a prestigious private university like Harvard might not be a great career, but parents’ opportunity to use a flashy university’s name for cocktail party bragging. Having one’s child get into a top school is just another form of ‘keeping up with the Joneses.’”

In her Bloomberg opinion piece that Indiviglio accurately summarized, Shales writes about the common misconception that a top university affiliation is always and forever more valuable than attending any other college. She suggests that parents “go mad” during the month of March while their children wait to hear back from colleges out of love … and out of college narcissism. “Parents want the rear-window decal on the car for themselves. They want it so bad they ignore inputs from scholars at the very universities they hold in such high esteem,” she explained.

Race to Nowhere, a 2009 documentary film written by Maimone Attia and directed by Vicki Abeles and Jessica Congdon, offers a close-up look at the pressures to succeed put on today’s students. The movie details the lives of several young people across the country—lives packed with activities with little time left for relaxation or family time. The film tackles the dark side of today’s high-achievement-obsessed culture, from over-burdened schedules to academic cheating to student suicide and more.

How (Not) to Get into an Ivy League College

Still have your heart set on an elite college, even after reading everything above? Here’s some advice from Joie Jager-Hyman, a former admissions officer at Dartmouth and the author of Fat Envelope Frenzy: One Year, Five Students and the Pursuit of the Ivy League Prize. “There’s no secret formula for getting in, but understanding what doesn’t work will save you time, money and, possibly, some tears,” she explained in a column for Forbes.

  • Don’t take easy classes just to get good grades.
  • Don’t believe the hype when you hear admissions officers at competitive colleges tell you that SAT or ACT scores don’t matter.
  • Don’t pass up the statistical advantage of being an Early Decision candidate.
  • Don’t fool yourself into thinking that the “perfect” essay will make up for less-than-perfect academics.
  • Don’t ignore the role your teachers and guidance counselors play in putting together a great Ivy League application.
  • Don’t stress about college so much that you ruin your high school experience.

View the rest of her advice here and when you’re done, don’t forget to compare the colleges you’re considering with the School Comparison tool.


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.