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Does Attending a More Selective School Guarantee Future Success?

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How will my school help me in the future? We look at if attending selective colleges results in better outcomes after graduation. 


Many high school students face pressure to attend a selective college or university in the pursuit of future success. At first glance, the pressure seems warranted: Selective colleges have higher graduation rates than non-selective colleges (the average student has a 77 percent chance of graduating at selective universities, compared to just 51 percent at open-access schools). 


Studies have also found that those who have attended selective colleges have higher earnings later in life. On average, graduates from top-tier colleges earn 12 percent more than graduates from middle-tier colleges, and 18 percent more than graduates from bottom-tier colleges.


While the connection between college selectivity and future earnings is often interpreted as evidence that attending a selective school is a worthy investment for students and families, this is a misinterpretation. There’s no question that attending a selective school is a worthy investment for some students, but for others, which school they attend may not make a significant difference in their future earnings.


The Problem with Selective-School Research

Research on selective colleges is often misleading because these schools choose students with skills and characteristics that make them already likely to succeed. The achievements of these graduates may then have little to do with their school and more to do with the type of people they were even before they entered college. And some research shows that when you control for the quality of entering students, the link between college selectivity and future earnings disappears.


For example, in a 2002 paper from The Quarterly Journal of Economics, researchers Stacy Berg Dale and Alan B. Krueger compared the earnings of students who applied to and were accepted by similar colleges. The fact that these students were accepted by similar schools allowed the researchers to conclude that they were of seemingly comparable ability. Whatever difference there was in earnings, therefore, could be attributed directly to the colleges and not to the skills and characteristics the students already possessed. When the bias was eliminated in this way, the researchers found no significant difference in earnings between students who attended more selective schools and students who attended less selective schools.


Similarly, the claim that college selectivity influences a student’s likelihood of graduation is challenged by studies that control for the quality of entering students. When selection bias is eliminated in this way, attending a more selective college is not found to benefit the average student’s chances of graduation.


When Selective Schools Can Make a Difference

For certain demographics, there can be a clear benefit of attending a selective college. Children from low-income families, for example, tend to report higher future earnings if they attended a more selective college. 


This is an important exception in Dale and Krueger’s study: “The gain from attending a college with a 200 point higher average SAT score for a family whose predicted log income is in the bottom decile is 8 percent, versus virtually nil for a family with mean income,” the researchers note.


A possible explanation for this finding is that by attending a more selective school, these students gain access to professional networks from which they otherwise would be excluded. This finding is also significant as it suggests there’s reason to support recent efforts to make elite colleges more accessible to low-income, high-achieving students. 


Through their acceptance and financial aid policies, selective colleges can directly contribute to the upward mobility of disadvantaged demographics. Given that many elite colleges accept relatively few low-income students, there are missed opportunities for such contributions at present. Ivy League colleges, for example, have more students from the top one percent of the income distribution than the bottom 50 percent.


Thus, the question of whether attending a selective school is a worthy investment or not depends on who’s asking the question. Certain demographics (such as low-income students) seem to benefit significantly from attending a selective school. Given that highly selective colleges tend to offer generous need-based financial aid packages, they may actually be more affordable for low-income students than less selective colleges.



Estimated 2020-21 Cost of Attendance

Average Cost if Family Income is:




Brown University





Massachusetts Institute of Technology





Stanford University





University of California, Berkeley





Yale University





Sources: College Scorecard


For the average student, however, attending a more selective school may not be the income-maximizing choice. Choosing which college to attend is an important decision, but it’s one that is better thought of in terms of fit rather than overemphasizing college selectivity.


Another important factor to consider is that college selectivity affects some majors less than others. For example, even when studies don’t control for the quality of entering students, they tend to find little difference in earnings among science majors. A student who wants to major in engineering, therefore, may have even more reason to attend a cheaper state school rather than a more expensive elite college.


Beware of “Undermatching”

Whether you hope to go to an Ivy League college or a public university, make sure the school you attend is one that’s suitable for your grades, test scores, and other academic accomplishments. “Undermatching” — where a student opts for a lower-tier college, even though they could likely get into a more selective school — can put students at a disadvantage. 


One study from the American Educational Research Association found that undermatched students are less likely to graduate in four or six years. And undermatching can disproportionately affect students of color; the trend was highest among black students (49%) and Hispanic students suffered the widest graduation gap.


There are plenty of reasons for students to undermatch, but many students may believe that elite schools are out of their league or too expensive. And in some cases, that may be true — though some colleges are better at providing opportunities for low-income students than others. 


One study looked at which elite schools offer more opportunities for nonwealthy students. The findings showed that 38 U.S. colleges (including five Ivy League schools) admitted more students from the top 1 percent than from the entire bottom 60 percent of the income scale. 


But other elite schools, such as UCLA, Emory, and Barnard, do a much better job of admitting a more income-diverse group of students. And those that graduate are often on a more level playing field; low- and middle-income students who graduate from top schools go on to be nearly as successful as their wealthier peers. 


The Bottom Line

The findings above are especially pertinent today when the cost of attending college continues to climb and the pressure to attend a selective school is at an all-time high. Students should remind themselves that it is ultimately their skills and characteristics that influence their success. Similarly, rather than worrying over a college’s acceptance rate, parents might be better off emphasizing values such as self-motivation, ambition, and perseverance.

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