Does It Matter Where You Go To College? Yes And No

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March 31, 2015 6:00 a.m.
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The next few weeks mark America’s annual ritual of academic handwringing: elite college admissions. Universities will begin mailing out acceptances and rejections to hopeful students across the country. For some parents, entry into their child’s coveted school will bring a sigh of relief, while others will view rejections as a referendum on their success as a parent and their child’s chances of a good future.

People who are current or soon-to-be participants in this admissions tournament would do well to heed the message in Frank Bruni’s new book Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be. Bruni, a New York Times op-ed columnist, urges everyone to just calm down and recognize that people thrive in a multitude of environments and there is no shame in attending a place that doesn’t rank among the “elite.” You might call it the case for college settling.

Actually, the situation is even better than Bruni presents. That’s because all those cases that seem like students settling for a worse college is like being disappointed at getting a Lexus rather than a Mercedes.

Consider the lead example in Bruni’s March 13 Times op-ed. He tells the story of Peter Hart, who dreamt of going to the University of Michigan and instead ended up at Indiana University. Indiana has nearly $2 billion in its endowment and over three-quarters of its students graduate. It’s also an elite research university as evidenced by being one of only 62 members of the prestigious Association of American Universities. Scripps College, the other example of a second-choice institution, rejects two out of every three people who apply to it and has an 85 percent graduation rate.

The simple truth is, if you are in the financial situation to even have a choice between major, brand-name colleges across multiple states and timezones, you are already leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else attending a community college or regional public university (the type that tends to have “state” or a compass direction in its name). You’re picking among a set of well-resourced colleges where most students graduate and the degree name carries national recognition.

In fact, the mistake too many families make when picking schools is paying too much for a private college that’s likely no better and possibly worse than their home state’s flagship institution. For example, Scripps College costs almost $64,000 a year. The University of New Hampshire, the home state option for the student in Bruni’s op-ed, costs half that despite being one of the most expensive public colleges in the country. The two have nearly identical graduation rates and almost no borrowers default on their loans. It’s hard to make an argument that Scripps is $120,000 better over four years than UNH.

One reason why many families may not make the prudent financial choice is the belief that attending an elite college is a predicate for becoming fabulously wealthy. And it’s undeniable that the Ivy League does produce a lot of extremely affluent people. That reasoning, however, is a correlation versus causation error. People look at all the presidents, senators, CEOs and Davos attendees and conclude that because so many of these individuals attended Ivy League universities, it must be the colleges that matter. But that’s backwards. It’s because these colleges enroll the children of so many high-powered and wealthy people that they produce so many people who end up that way. They’re another form of the entrenched intergenerational income inequality we suffer from in this country.

The admissions process explains exactly how these colleges can so easily come to be dominated by the wealthy. That’s because it is not some virtuous exercise in meritocracy. Rather, it’s a rigged racket built on what often resembles pseudoscience.

For starters, about half the spots were filled months ago through an early admission process that favors wealthy applicants who are able to enroll regardless of the financial aid they receive. Students are also competing against legacy applicants who have odds that are closer to a coin flip of getting in. (Disclosure: I fell into this category and have felt guilty about it for forever.) Then the colleges need athletes to fill 280 sports teams. And as this piece on the George Washington University admissions process suggests, the actual discussion of applicants revolves around vague conceptions of fit and transcript analysis that none of the thousands of PhD-holding professors at these institutions would ever allow. Not getting into one of these colleges is as much the result of a personal failing as is losing a presidential election to Vladimir Putin.

It’s understandable why the public is so drawn to elite colleges. They appear to be guaranteed tickets to fortune and power. But reaching the upper echelon of American society involves a lot more than where someone went to college and all too often it’s more the result of where they started (a billionaire’s son has 1 in 9 odds of being a billionaire).

We would all be much better off if we stopped thinking of college as a lottery ticket to millions and instead what it really is: a dependable path to a middle- and upper-middle-class lifestyle, high employment rates and a host of other positive outcomes. Doing that would allow us to recognize how special any opportunity for a four-year education is and stop judging self-worth based on a flawed admissions process.

Ben Miller is a senior policy analyst at the New America Foundation.

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