Does Where You Go To College Matter?

The college decision can be a stressful one. It feels like your life hangs in the balance, and if you don’t attend the “right” school, you’re setting yourself up for a lifetime of failure.

Plenty of research has shown, however, that this is simply not the case. The most prominent series of studies on the topic were those performed over many years by Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger. Their first study confirmed the assumed wisdom that people who attend more selective schools, on average, are more successful, if we define success in monetary terms. People who attend selective schools make more money, all other things equal.

The catch, however, is that other things are not equal. In a follow-up study, Dale and Krueger investigated whether it was the colleges themselves that led to the later income disparity, or if there might be some inherent differences in the student bodies of more and less selective schools that would lead to differences in income down the line, having no relation to the education provided by those schools at all. What they found was once you controlled for standardized test scores and ambition, where you went to college made, on average, absolutely no difference to your future income. A bright, motivated student who could swing a 1500 on the SATs and applied to some selective schools would likely end up with a high income whether they actually attended a more selective college or a less selective one. The more selective colleges produced more high income earners simply because they only accepted high flyers to begin with, whereas less selective schools accepted a mix of high, low, and mid-level achievers, so their outcomes were as diverse as their student bodies. The selectivity of the college attended had, on average, no effect on their students’ future success.

Dale and Krueger found two important exceptions to this rule, however. For under-represented minority students and students from less educated households, the selectivity of the college attended did seem to have a statistically significant effect on future income. Attending a more selective college seemed to convey some advantage in the job market to these populations, whether through the alumni connections made, the social expectations of peers, or the signaling power that a brand-name school had in overcoming implicit biases of hiring managers. In short, for students from less advantaged backgrounds, attending more selective schools seemed to convey an advantage in the job market that their more privileged classmates, for whom the college selection made no difference, already had.

A more recent study summarized in The Atlantic took another look at the financial return on college selectivity, and confirmed Dale and Krueger’s finding of no significant effect on the general population. Interestingly, they did identify one additional subgroup for whom attending a more selective college did correlate with increased income: women. Now, if you restrict your study group to just full-time workers, as the initial study did, again, there was no effect. Full-time female workers, like their male counterparts, on average, made no more money having attended a more selective school as opposed to a less selective school (when controlling for things like SAT scores). But, if you looked at the whole population of women, not just full-time workers, a difference was found. In short, women who attended more selective schools did not make more per hour than women who attended less selective schools, but they worked more hours because, according to the study’s authors, they ended up marrying and starting families later (a factor which did not affect the income of men, but that is a subject for another day…).

Now, a question remains in my mind as to whether attending a selective college actually caused women to delay marriage and raising children, or if more career-focused, ambitious women tend to gravitate in higher numbers to more selective schools (as students with higher SATs do), and so would be naturally more likely to focus on their careers and delay starting families. In other words, the career-orientation leads to the college, rather than the college leading to the career-orientation. The study authors attempted to control for this possibility by using the students’ mothers’ employment as a proxy for student career ambition—i.e. if a student’s mother worked, she would be more likely to be career-focused—and they did not find maternal employment to be the causal link in more work and, therefore, higher total earnings among women who attended selective colleges, but I question if this proxy input was sufficient to capture the innate career ambition of women attending more or less selective colleges, which is, of course, difficult to measure on its own. In any case, one could assume that encouraging your daughter to focus on her career in her twenties and wait to start a family would have at least as significant an effect on future success as attending a selective college would, and this, of course, implies that you consider high income to be more of a measure of success than a full house is, which is a highly debatable proposition.

So what if we look beyond income as a measure of success? A 2013 Pew Research study asked graduates of both public and private colleges to rank their satisfaction with, yes, their personal financial situation, but also their family life and their current job. College graduates, in general, reported high levels of satisfaction with these three aspects of their lives, and there was no statistically significant difference in levels of satisfaction found between public and private college graduates, despite not controlling for any other factors. Similarly, both public and private school graduates overwhelmingly agreed that the investment made in their education paid off for them.

Another study, this one performed by Gallup Poll and Purdue University, looked at levels of engagement at work and general well-being among college graduates, and found zero connection between these measures of success and the type of college attended—whether looking at public versus private colleges, large versus small colleges, or more selective versus less selective colleges. What did matter to future levels of workplace engagement and overall well-being was a student’s experience at college. Students who had professors who made them excited about learning, cared about them, and encouraged them to pursue their goals, along with students who participated in long-term projects, applied their lessons in internships, and were actively involved in extracurriculars in college were far more likely to report higher levels of workplace engagement and well-being than students who did not have these experiences in college.

Now, average trends only tell us so much about where any individual may thrive—you or your child may end up doing better at a safety school or a reach school, for example—but I think the results of all of this research, particularly the Gallup-Purdue survey, can provide two distinct tidbits of wisdom to students now making their final college choices. First, rather than looking at the name-brand on a college as your decision driver, think about where you think you will find the most support and opportunity for engagement, and let this analysis drive your college decision. Alternatively, if your college choices are more limited than you had hoped—if you only were admitted to one or two schools, your preferred college is not affordable to your family, or your choices are restricted by some other factor—note that the experiences that seem to lead to future success are available at any college. You can seek out mentorship from professors at any school. You can get involved in your college community anywhere. You just need to put the work into it. So, while it may be impossible to remove all stress from the college decision process, high school seniors should know that whatever choices they make over the next month are not going to determine their future success. The research suggests that for the vast majority of students, the groundwork for success will be laid by what you do with your college education, not where you go.


Written by Shannon Vasconcelos
Shannon Vasconcelos is a college finance expert at College Coach. Before joining College Coach, she was a Senior Financial Aid Officer at Tufts University and Boston University.