Children Smart Enough to Get into Elite Schools May Not Need to Bother

Your son or daughter has just been accepted to both the University of Pennsylvania and to Penn State. The dcadline for decision is May 1. Where should he or she go?

Many factors should be considered, of course, but lots of parents and students are particularly interested In the potential economic payoff from higher education. Until recently. there was a consensus ,0n economists that students who attend more selective colleges-ones with tougher admissions standards=-Lmd better paying Jobs as a result. Having smart, motivated classmates and a prestigious degree were thought to enhance learning and give students access to job networks.

But is it true?

A study that I conducted with Stacy Dale of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. .Estimating. the Payout. Attending a More Selective College(available online at has unintentionally undermined this consensus.

It is easy to see how one could think that elite colleges enhance their graduates earnings. According to the College and Beyond Survey, data collected by the Mellon Foundation, the average student who entered a highly selective college like Yale,Swath more or the University (Pennsylvania in 1976, earned $92,000 in 1995. The average student from a moderately selective college, like Penn State, Venison or Tulane, earned $22,000 less.

The problem with this comparison is that students who attend morn selective colleges arc likely to have higher earnings regardless of where they attend college for the very reasons that they were admitted to the more selective colleges in the first place.

Trying to address the problem, earlier studies compared students with similar standardized test scorch, and grade point averages who attended more and less selective schools. But this approach takes account of much less information than admissions committees sec. There is no guarantee that all the relevant differences among students
have been held constant. This problem is known as selection bias. More selective schools accept students with greater earnings potential, and students with greater earnings potential arc more likely to apply to more selective schools.

To overcome the problem, Ms. Dale and I restricted the comparison to students who applied III and were accepted by comparable colleges. Some students chose more selective schools; some less selective ones.

Our research found that earnings were unrelated to the selectivity of the college the students had attended among those who had comparable options. For example, the average earnings for the 519 students who were accepted by both moderately selective (average College Board scores of 1.000 to 1,099) Schools  (average scores greater than 1.275) varied little, no matter which type of college they attended.

One group of students, however, clearly benefited from attending a highly selective college: those from lower income families=-defined approximately as the bottom quarter of families who send children to college. l-or them, attending a more elective school increased earnings-significantly .

My advice to students: Don’t believe that the only school worth attending is one that would not admit you. That you go to college is more important than where you go. Find a school whose academic strength match  interests and which devotes resources to instruction in those fields. Recognize that your own motivation  and talents will determine your success more than the college name on your diploma. My advice to elite colleges: Recognize that the most disadvantaged students benefit most from your instruction.Set financial aid and admission policies accordingly.

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