A closer look at the value of an elite college education

A new working paper from economists at Virginia Tech, Tulane University, and the University of Virginia offers a more nuanced look at the value of highly selective colleges. The researchers conclude that college selectivity does affect long-term earnings—but only for certain demographic groups.

According to The Atlantic, this latest research revisits a 2002 “landmark paper” by Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger, which found no relationship between college selectivity and long-term earnings after adjusting for certain student attributes, including test scores. But a new analysis of the data that expands the sample scope beyond full-time, full-year workers and takes into account “labor force participation, human capital, and family formation” has revealed a slightly different story.

For women, college choice may affect career length

According to the economists, attending an elite college still appears to have little effect on the long-term earnings of male students, especially affluent male students, who tend to have strong social networks and familial connections. However, they found that attending a selective institution can have major career and salary implications for women.

Among women, attending an institution with a 100-point higher average SAT score increases their earnings by 14 percent. Amalia Miller, a co-author of the new working paper, described the dynamic: “College selectivity does seem to matter, especially for married women, by raising earnings almost entirely through the channel of increased labor force participation.” In other words, The Atlantic says, the data show that women who attend elite schools tend to “delay marriage, delay having kids, and stay in the workforce longer.”

For lower-income students, elite colleges associated with earnings gains

The Atlantic also references a 2017 study, “Mobility Report Cards: The Role of Colleges in Intergenerational Mobility,” which corroborates the finding that elite colleges affect certain demographics in different ways. Led by the economist Raj Chetty, the study found that lower-income students who attended an elite school were much more likely to reach the highest bracket of the earnings distribution than students who attended a well-regarded public university. Lower-income students attending elite colleges benefit not only from their educational experience but also from access to alumni networks and status signifiers—advantages that can make a significant difference for those not born into wealth.

Given these findings, The Atlantic calls on admissions officers of elite colleges to provide social mobility for those who need it most. Citing a statistic that highly selective colleges “enroll more students from the top 1 percent of the income scale than the entire bottom 60 percent,” The Atlantic says that “the highest-income colleges should be desperate to find the right kids for their seats” and look critically at their role in perpetuating income inequality.

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