There was a fairly recent study that showed that it’s not so much where you went to college that matters for future life earnings (though, that’s certainly a very incomplete measure of “success”), but rather where you got in to college. I.e. If you were smart and talented enough to get into Harvard, you should still succeed greatly even if you chose to slum it at NC State. Apparently, there’s more to it than that. In the Atlantic, Jordan Weissmann sums up the major strands of evidence on the issue:
Study 2: IF YALE REJECTS ME, AM I DOOMED?
Nope. There’s evidence that where you apply is more important than where you attend.
In studies this decade, academics have gone out in search of naturally occurring experiments to try and figure out if it’s the school that counts when it comes to earning potential, or the student. One of the best known efforts was by Stacy Berg Dale of the Andrew Mellon Foundation and Alan Kreuger of Princeton, who came to the unexpected conclusion that, in some respects, where you went to college was less important than where you applied…
The big surprise: Selectivity didn’t matter. Academic siblings ended up making just about the same wages after college regardless of how choosy their school was. In fact, where the students applied, and their final class rank in school, were much better correlated with earnings than their school’s admissions standards. If you were smart enough to get into Yale, or even take a shot at it, you were probably smart enough to earn like a Yale grad.
There was a big caveat, however. Although tough admissions standards didn’t count for much, tuition prices did. Students who went to more expensive schools consistently outearned their peers during life after college. Dale and Kreuger theorized that spending per student may have been the explanation. While an ambitious sophomore could probably find like-minded classmates to study with anywhere, they couldn’t make up for their school’s resources. The authors also allowed that students at posher colleges might come from wealthier families, which could have an effect.
I also think it is quite possible that choosing to pay the tuition premium reflects an individual who values earnings more in their career choice than an equally smart individual who chooses a much more affordable high-quality state school. The type of person who gets into Duke and chooses UNC is different from the type of person who gets into Duke and chooses Duke. Presumably, this personality difference may affect career choices in a way that affects earnings independent of the quality and advantages from a Duke education.
And lastly, this:
Study 3: IF I CAN’T GET INTO A GOOD STATE SCHOOL, AM I DOOMED?
Actually, yeah. You might be.
In a 2009 paper, Texas A&M professor Mark Hoekstra used a somewhat simpler experiment to try and solve the elite college question. He compared the earnings of white, male students who had barely missed the admissions cut-off for an unnamed public flagship university to those of students who had barely been accepted. Although the subjects were roughly similar in academic terms, the differences in their future earnings were profound. Enrolling at the flagship increased wages by 20 percent, a divide illustrated vividly in the chart below.
Well, NCSU is a “co-flagship.” Good for our students. Presumably, better off just barely getting in than not getting in and heading off to ECU or UNC-G. Weissman also links to an interesting (but I have to suggest dubious) chart on colleges ranked for return on investment.
Hooray for my (and Kim’s) parents. Apparently they are great investors as Duke comes in #11. NCSU or UNC (where I’ll be investing) come in much, much lower.
Interesting stuff. Leaves me with two questions: 1) Just how useful a measure of what a college does for you is earnings? 2) What exactly is it that leads to higher earnings? As for the latter, I strongly suspect that it ends up being a lot more about who you know and who you are than what the college teaches you. That said, my Duke education was absolutely amazing and I honestly feel has been a real benefit to me in life and career. That said, so not worth the additional money over a strong state flagship. (Now, the basketball rooting riots, that may be worth it).