We begin with an analogy. Three racehorses: Cream of the Crop, Above Average, and Run of the Mill are selected by three trainers of varying quality to prepare for the Kentucky Derby. Trainer A is world-renowned, highly sought-after and thus has his pick of the litter. Without hesitation, he scoops up Cream of the Crop who has the most natural ability of the three equine athletes. Trainer B won’t work with just anyone—he generally gets strong horses who don’t quite catch the eye of Trainer A. Not surprisingly, he chooses to work with Above Average whose name aptly sums up his natural talent. Trainer C spends more time sipping mint juleps and ogling women in oversized derby hats than actually working with the horses. He takes Run of the Mill because, well, that’s who is left.

If Cream of the Crop wins the Kentucky Derby, Trainer A will bask in his horse’s glory and claim all the credit. The question is, what does taking in elite thoroughbreds and churning out winners actually prove about Trainer A? If Cream of the Crop had worked with Trainer B, would he not have still won the Derby? What if Cream of the Crop had elected to work with that ol’ lascivious lush, Trainer C? Could he still have emerged victorious given his immense natural talent?

Now let’s step out of the analogy. Substitute students for horses, colleges for trainers, and future earnings for winning the Kentucky Derby and you should be left with similar questions. In order to begin to find answers to these types of questions related to college choice and future earnings we have to explore a concept known as “returns to selectivity.”

Returns to Selectivity

In recent years, the rather revolutionary notion that where you go to college will do little to determine your future life and career has exploded in popularity, endorsed by columnists and policy analysts alike. For this we are quite glad. The frenzied “rat race” of elite college admissions causes undue stress and anxiety on students and families. We are firm believers that talented, driven students will thrive whether they get into the Ivy League school of their dreams or one of the other 3,000 four-year institutions spread across these United States.

That being said, we hesitate at making a sweeping, unequivocal statement say that it “doesn’t matter where you go to college.” To do so would ignore decade’s worth of research on outcomes related to selectivity—research that has uncovered some nuances and important distinctions on the subject of how much a school does or does not impact its students’ future success.

The terms “returns to selectivity” refers to the financial benefit of attending schools across the selectivity spectrum—from Harvard with its infinitesimal 6% acceptance rate to Northern Arizona University with its generous 98% acceptance rate. The body of research from this field of study will enlighten and surprise you.

Confirming assumptions: 1999-2008

To briefly return to our horse-training scenario, the first true question is an obvious one—do Trainer A, B, and C’s horses actually enjoy different rates of success?

In an effort to scientifically explore the relationship between selectivity and economic returns, researchers in the late 1990s (Brewer & Ehrenberg, 1999) were able to verify that students attending colleges on the high end of the selectivity spectrum do in fact earn higher wages, on average, than students attending less selective institutions. For example, Yale graduates, as you would have expected, enjoy superior average earnings to graduates of Southern Connecticut State University, New Haven’s public and less prestigious four-year institution.

Nearly a decade later, a study by Long (2008) reached a similar conclusion about the monetary benefit of attending an elite school over a less-selective school. This research affirmed presumptions about how income is linked to college selectivity but did so only by comparing apples to oranges, students attending ultra-selective schools versus non-selective ones. To uncover more illuminating data, it was time to toss aside the Valencias and line-up a pair of nearly identical Granny Smiths.

Apples to apples: 2009

In attempt to the look at the effects of attending a selective institution on comparable applicants, Hoekstra’s (2009) study looked at two groups with almost everything in common, except for one thing—where they went to college.

Students barely admitted into Texas A&M, one of Texas’s most selective public universities, were evaluated against similarly-qualified students who were denied admission at the same institution and ultimately, in most cases, enrolled in far less selective schools. Interestingly, the group of students who attended A&M eventually earned 20% more, on average, than their rejected counterparts, a sizable discrepancy.

While this outcome tells us something about selectivity’s impact on monetary returns, the takeaways are limited because the schools attended by the two groups were either highly selective like Texas A&M or barely selective at all; the middle was nowhere to be found. In our horse scenario, this would be like comparing horses trained by Trainer A and Trainer C and leaving Trainer B entirely out of the equation. While the natural talent of the “horses” was similar, unlike in earlier studies, the caliber of “training” received was not.

In essence, what remained unanswered was the essential question—do students actually benefit from enrolling at the most selective college available to them? In 2011, two researchers would begin to shed light on an answer.

A complex picture emerges: 2011

Prior research confirmed that Yale graduates earn more, on average, than students at Southern Connecticut State University, New Haven’s public and less prestigious four-year institution. However, do Yale graduates earn more because of the name on their diploma, or because of the qualities that allowed them to earn admission at Yale in the first place?

In an effort to better crack this conundrum, Dale and Krueger (2011) set out to distinguish the benefits of college selectivity from personal characteristics that tend to result in professional success, regardless of one’s undergraduate institution. The cohorts of students studied by the researchers possessed similar backgrounds, boasted strong identical high school GPAs and SAT scores, and held similarly ambitious attitudes toward their educational and career goals. Here, the authors did find that graduates of more selective colleges realized earnings 7 percent greater, on average, than graduates of less selective institutions, but their most intriguing finding was yet to come.

When the authors incorporated an additional control (i.e. adjustment) for where students applied, they uncovered something quite interesting: students who applied to a more selective college but who chose instead to attend a less exclusive school still earned the same wages as graduates of these more choosy institutions. In other words, selectivity of the college one attended didn’t really matter; what counted was the selectivity of institutions to where one applied.

This finding suggests that attitude, rather than undergraduate name, drives earnings. In other words, if a student possesses the mindset to strive toward elite college attendance, he or she likely has the disposition and dexterity to achieve high earnings, regardless of whether he or she ultimately attends an elite institution.

Now that we have a clearer answer as to the relationship between college prestige and income, it’s time to muddy the waters yet again.

Cases where selectivity does matter

While Dale and Kruger found that the general population experiences little-to-no earnings boost by attending a supremely selective school vs. a moderately selective one, not every subject fit the mold.

Surprisingly, the study revealed that African Americans, Latino Americans and first-generation college students did in fact see substantial benefits from attending selective institutions. Members of these racial/socioeconomic groups who went on to attend selective college earned significantly more than similarly-qualified students of the same background who attended less exclusive schools. The “why” isn’t borne out by research but a likely explanation exists.

Members of the dominant class (White, wealthy, & educated) often run in social circles with other connected, powerful (even in a relative sense) people that possess a high degree of social capital. It stands to reason that while an upper-middle class student who attends a semi-selective state school is likely to benefit from a network of family and family-friends who can help that young person land their first job. A student from a lower-income household may lack these advantages and must therefore forge their own connections, accruing their own social capital only by navigating their way through an elite university.

As such, these groups may uniquely benefit, and thus be more inclined, to choose the most selective college they can attend. In a world of nepotism and networking, an “elite” brand name college can in fact open doors to students from less-advantaged backgrounds.

Back to the races…

Let’s head back to our Kentucky Derby analogy to clarify research-supported effects of selectivity on future income.

The full body of “returns to selectivity” research tells us that similarly equipped individuals will likely have an equal outcome in terms of career and monetary success whether they choose to attend an Ivy like the University of Pennsylvania or a state school like Penn State University, a very reputable yet slightly less selective institution. In horse-racing terms, an elite horse like Cream of the Crop is going to get his shot at the triple-crown whether they are schooled by Trainer A or Trainer B.

Trainer C, on the other hand, is quite a different story. If our same highly-qualified student passed up an opportunity to attend the University of Pennsylvania or Penn State in favor of the much less selective and much poorer Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, for example, they might not fare as well out in the working world. Schools like Bloomsburg, due to lack of funds, networks, resources, and competitive peer groups simply cannot provide a comparable undergraduate experience. This isn’t to say that an individual from Bloomsburg cannot be a President of the United States (Ronald Reagan attended Eureka College and Andrew Jackson was illiterate) or a Fortune 500 CEO (too many examples to list). It is only to say that graduates of less-selective state schools are not on equal footing with grads of highly-selective or moderately-selective colleges and universities in their quest to ascend the income ladder.

Conclusions: selectivity does matter but not entirely

In light of findings uncovered by the complete body of literature on returns to selectivity, it appears that college selectivity does matter, but not in the way that many think. Ultimately, there’s significantly more variability within selective colleges than there is between selective colleges. As such, if you have admission offers from multiple selective schools, don’t make your choice on the basis of a U.S. News rank; instead, choose a college because it provides the best fit, while knowing that your accomplishments during and after college will likely be determined not by where you attend, but by what you do during your undergraduate years. As long as you attend a school replete with research opportunities, chances to land internships, and sporting a strong alumni network, your future professional success will have more to do with your own ability and effort than the name of the college on your diploma. While it isn’t as simple a statement as “it doesn’t matter where you go to college” it is one that is actually backed by rigorous research.

Andrew Belasco
A licensed counselor and published researcher, Andrew's experience in the field of college admissions and transition spans more than one decade. He has previously served as a high school counselor, consultant and author for Kaplan Test Prep, and advisor to U.S. Congress, reporting on issues related to college admissions and financial aid.