College and University Blog

Ivy League vs. Your State University: Is an Elite College Worth the Money?

Considering that the current unemployment rate among college graduates is the highest it’s been in the past thirty-five years—nine percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute— more young adults are experiencing economic hardships than ever before. Many new college graduates are ineligible for unemployment benefits because they have no recent work history, and research has shown that graduating during a recession can limit someone’s lifetime earning potential.

Is One Degree Better than Another?

This dismal information, coupled with the rising costs associated with a college education, has more people wondering if pricy prestigious colleges are worth the cost. Name-dropping rights aside, is a degree from Harvard or Yale somehow “better” than a degree from a public university or community college?

A December 17, 2010 New York Times article poses the same question. Do graduates of elite colleges make more money than graduates of “inferior” schools? Are they able to get into better professional programs? Do they make better connections because of the college they attended? Students and parents want to know.

The article mentions a paper written by economists from the RAND Corporation and Brigham Young and Cornell Universities, which reports that “strong evidence emerges of a significant economic return to attending an elite private institution, and some evidence suggests this premium has increased over time.”

The researchers found that alumni of the most selective colleges earned an average of 40 percent more per year than those who graduated from the least selective public universities, as calculated 10 years after they graduated from high school.

In a separate paper, the same group of researchers found that “attendance at an elite private college significantly increases the probability of attending graduate school, and more specifically graduate school at a major research university.”

It’s important to note that these studies are now more than a decade old. Over that time period, the tuition sticker price for most elite private colleges has increased more rapidly than inflation, as well as faster than the cost of most public colleges and universities.

Graduates of Elite Colleges are Less Satisfied with their Jobs

A more recent study conducted earlier this year by two labor and education professors from Penn State and a sociologist from Claremont Graduate University in California wanted to see if the graduates of elite colleges were generally more satisfied in their work than those graduates of less prestigious schools.

Using a sample of 5,000 recipients of bachelor’s degrees in 1992 and 1993 who were then tracked for nearly ten years, the researchers concluded that “job satisfaction decreases slightly as college selectivity moves up.”

One theory for these findings is that elite college graduates may have had higher expectations for themselves, therefore making them more subject to disappointment than those who graduated from less competitive schools.

State Universities May be a Better Choice

In the long run, many researchers feel that how well a student takes advantage of the opportunities presented at any college may be more important than which one they attended. “Prestige does pay. But prestige costs, too. The question is, is the cost less than the added return?” Scott L. Thomas, the sociologist who is also a professor of educational studies at Claremont, said during an interview.

For some students, attending a large state university may help more than a degree from an Ivy League school when it’s time to find a job. “If you’ve attended a big state school with a tremendous football program, there’s tremendous affinity and good will — whether or not you had anything to do with the football program,” Mr. Thomas explained.

A Wall Street Journal study offered the same advice. The study surveyed 479 of the largest public and private companies, nonprofits and government agencies, finding that U.S. companies largely favor graduates of big state universities over Ivy League and other elite liberal-arts schools when hiring to fill entry-level jobs.


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.