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Impact of Attending an Elite College on Later Success

But what if the basis for all this stress and disappointment—the idea that getting into an elite college makes a big difference in life—is wrong? What if it turns out that going to the "highest ranked" school hardly matters at all?

The researchers Alan Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale began investigating this question, and in 1999 produced a study that dropped a bomb on the notion of elite-college attendance as essential to success later in life. Krueger, a Princeton economist, and Dale, affiliated with the Andrew Mellon Foundation, began by comparing students who entered Ivy League and similar schools in 1976 with students who entered less prestigious colleges the same year. They found, for instance, that by 1995 Yale graduates were earning 30 percent more than Tulane graduates, which seemed to support the assumption that attending an elite college smoothes one's path in life.

But maybe the kids who got into Yale were simply more talented or hardworking than those who got into Tulane. To adjust for this, Krueger and Dale studied what happened to students who were accepted at an Ivy or a similar institution, but chose instead to attend a less sexy, "moderately selective" school. It turned out that such students had, on average, the same income twenty years later as graduates of the elite colleges. Krueger and Dale found that for students bright enough to win admission to a top school, later income "varied little, no matter which type of college they attended." In other words, the student, not the school, was responsible for the success.
- Gregg Easterbrook, Who Needs Harvard?, The Atlantic Monthly, October 2004


“It’s absurd,” said Jerry Z. Muller, a professor of history at Catholic University of America and the author of “The Costs of Accountability,” a study of misplaced and misunderstood metrics. “Their graduates have high earnings because they’re incredibly selective about who they let in. And many of them come from privileged backgrounds, which also correlates with high earnings.” ...
The bottom line is that no ranking system or formula can really answer the question of what college a student should attend. Getting into a highly selective, top-ranked college may confer bragging rights, status and connections, but it doesn’t necessarily contribute to a good education or lifelong success, financial or otherwise.

The obsession with college rankings and graduates’ earnings “is just the most recent example of a larger phenomenon, which is that the gathering of numerical information acts as a kind of wish fulfillment,” Professor Muller said. “If you have enough metrics and benchmarks, somehow people believe that’s going to solve a major problem. It rarely does.”
- James Stewart, College Rankings Fail to Measure the Influence of the Institution, New York Times, Oct. 1, 2015


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