The popular wisdom has been that students should attend the “best” college that they can get into, ” best” being a synonym for “élite” or ” prestigious” .The reasoning is that a degree from an élite college leads to markedly higher earnings over one’s career. However, in these tough times , with college tuitions going through the roof , perhaps the time has come to take a second look at the issue .
The New York Times of 12/17/10 carried an excellent article by Jacques Steinberg on the subject : “ Is going to an élite college worth the cost ?”. The following is a listing of the main points of that article along with my thoughts on the subject. While I am by no means an expert on education issues , I have a keen interest in them and have spent some time thinking about them . I’ve seen my own children and their friends make their way through college and grad school and have been privy to their thoughts and feelings . So here goes :
1.Research by economists from the RAND Corporation and Brigham Young and Cornell Universities found that attending an élite private institution leads to considerably higher earnings over the course of one’s career. Though the study is ten years old , education experts feel that this premium is still not only true but has increased over time.Researchers have found that alumni of the most selective colleges earned, on average, 40 percent more a year than those who graduated from the least selective public universities, as calculated 10 years after they graduated from high school.Those same researchers found also that attendance at an élite private college significantly increases the probability of attending graduate school,more specifically graduate school at a major research university.( True, but one should remember that the students who attend élite universities are academically stronger , more motivated high achievers than those at lesser schools . I daresay that they would do better and earn more than their less gifted fellows even if they had all attended the same school .)
2. A major flaw in such research is that it is hard to separate out the impact of the institution from the inherent abilities and personal qualities of the individual graduate. How much of the student’s success is due to the college he attends and how much to his attributes ?A 1999 study by economists from Princeton and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation compared students at more selective colleges to others of “seemingly comparable ability,” based on their SAT scores and class rank, who had attended less selective schools. The earnings of graduates in the two groups were about the same. ( No surprise to this observer . I feel that , whether in high school or college , the reputation of the institution is dependent primarily on the achievements of its students. Once a school acquires a certain cachet , that in turn attracts more good students and so on and so on… ).
3. Children from “disadvantaged family backgrounds” seem to benefit most from attending an élite college.( The researchers don’t speculate why this can be so , but I will . I feel that , for such students , attending an élite college increases their self esteem , opens up undreamt of possibilities and unlocks their latent abilities).
4. A decade long study of nearly 5,000 recipients of bachelor’s degrees in 1992 and 1993, who were tracked for nearly a decade, concluded that “job satisfaction decreases slightly as college selectivity moves up.” One hypothesis is that graduates of élite colleges expect more — especially when it comes to earnings — and are thus more subject to disappointment.
5. The college rankings in U.S News and World Report and other publications are based on a variety of factors and are generalized assessments . As one educator points out, there is more variability within schools than between them . (A top-rated college such as Harvard is not necessarily the best for a particular major. For instance, a student who wants to major in engineering or robotics is better off at Carnegie Mellon rather than at Columbia.)
6. The prestige of an institution is less important than how well it fits the needs of the individual student . Those needs will vary according to a number of factors such as the student’s economic background. For instance , in the case of students from less affluent families , the need to earn a reliable salary quickly may outweigh all other considerations . For such students , acquiring a practical skill may be more important than attending an élite school and building up contacts that may serve them in the future.
That is why , the article concludes , the choice of a college is such an personal decision.
(My next post will give my criteria for choosing a college . Look for it ).