US college scandal: How much difference does going to a top university make?

BBC News :

The US admissions scandal has seen dozens of people charged following claims wealthy parents paid bribes to get their children places at elite colleges.

But how much does which university you attend really matter?

Not much, according to research – and it looks as if it matters least of all for those from the most privileged backgrounds

Many affluent parents may be spending a huge amount of time, money, and energy to secure a bumper-sticker-worthy college place, with little by way of tangible results, research suggests.

Instead, it is those from the most deprived backgrounds who stand to gain most but are least able to access places.

Future earnings

It is certainly true that the graduates of elite institutions earn more than those from less prestigious colleges.

But this is almost inevitable, given students with higher grades are more likely to be admitted to selective institutions in the first place.

Those who attended a top college earn more than graduates from non-elite institutions by their mid-30s, including those from poorer backgrounds, data suggests.

For example, students from middle-income households who attended Ivy League colleges have average earnings of more than $100,000 (£77,500) by the time they are 34, research suggests. These institutions – including Harvard, Princeton and Yale – have average tuition fees of about $55,000 (£42,600) and admit about one in 20 applicants.

This compares with earnings of about $40,000 (£31,000) for those who attended minimally selective schools.

The effect on earnings of going to a top university is greatest for students from households with the highest and lowest incomes.

Most of the colleges in the scandal (Yale and Stanford aside) are in the “other elite” category, where the income boost is lower.

However, it is perhaps unsurprising that many parents are tempted to do all they can to secure a place at a top college.

But, as their children will learn in Statistics 101, correlation does not equal causation.

The question is whether elite colleges themselves boost future earnings, or whether they simply select highly skilled students who would succeed anyway.

Most of the evidence suggests it is largely the latter.

Smart, motivated students who go to an elite college, research suggests, earn about the same as equally smart, motivated ones who go to a slightly less selective one.

Studies suggest that students admitted to a more selective college who then chose to enrol at a lower-ranked institution don’t earn less in later years.

Not all researchers come to the same conclusion but most studies suggesting any causal effect of attending a more selective college find at most a modest difference.

In many cases, the choice of college major can have as big an effect as the college itself. For example, one study indicates selectivity is important for business majors but not for those in the sciences.