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Will Attending a More Selective School Guarantee Future Success?

January 24, 2018

How will school help me in the future?  We look at whether selective colleges result 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 tend to 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.

Research on selective colleges is often misleading because selective colleges choose students with skills and characteristics that make them already likely to succeed. The achievements of college graduates may have little to do with their school and more to do with the type of people they were even before they entered college. When studies 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 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.

However, for certain demographics, there is 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 1 percent of income distribution represented on campus than the bottom 50 percent.


Thus, the question of whether attending a selective school is a worthy investment depends on who’s asking the question. Certain demographics (e.g., 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 2015-16 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, Jack Kent Cooke Foundation


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 (and often costly) decision, one that is better thought of in terms of fit rather than over-emphasizing 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.


These findings are especially pertinent today when the cost of college attendance 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.



About the author:

Hannah Kwak is a junior at Yale University, majoring in Comparative Literature. She has an interest in education policy and spent last summer working with Breakthrough of Greater Philadelphia preparing seniors for the college application process.