But what about the Smug Points?

Interesting. An analysis of the results of that Ivy League college vs. the state land-grant college shows no difference.

These researchers tracked two groups of students—one that attended college in the 1970s and another in the early 1990s. They wanted know: Did students attending the most elite colleges earn more in their 30s, 40s, and 50s than students with similar SAT scores, who were rejected from those elite colleges? The short answer was no. Or, in the author’s language, the difference between the students who went to super-selective schools and the students with similar SAT scores who were rejected from those schools and went to less selective institutions was “indistinguishable from zero.”

What does that mean, exactly? It means that, for many students, “who you are” as an 18-year-old is more important than “where you go.” After correcting for a student’s pre-existing talent, ambition, and habits, it’s hard to show that highly selective colleges add much earning power, even with their vaunted professors, professional networks, and signaling. If you’re one of the roughly 50,000-100,000 students who is sweating a decision from one of these tony schools, you’re focused on the wrong thing. The decision of a group of people you’ve never met isn’t as important as the sum of the decisions, habits, and relationships you’ve built up to this point in your young life.

Or, to put it in less encouraging terms, college isn’t a vehicle for upward mobility. There is an important exception, though.

For the elite colleges themselves, the Dale-Krueger paper had an additional, fascinating finding. The researchers found that the most selective schools really do make an extraordinary difference in life earnings for “black and Hispanic students” and “students who had parents with an average of less than 16 years of schooling.”

In other words, getting into Princeton if your parents went to Princeton? Fine, although not a game-changer. But getting into Princeton if your parents both left community college after a year? That could be game-changing. There are several potential explanations, but I’m most persuaded by one that Dale and Krueger put in their conclusions section. Minority students from less-educated families are more likely to rely on colleges to provide the internship and job networks that come automatically from living in a rich neighborhood with wealthy parents.

As the article points out, though, the students who would benefit most are the least likely to get in — the big name colleges have an interest in perpetuating the status quo and protecting the social hierarchy, so through mechanisms like “legacy” admissions (jeez, but I hate “legacies” — I saw too many brilliant undergrads fail to get into med school while their less competent, lazy peers sailed in on their parents’ status) they police who is admitted.

Anyway, I’m at a state university — apply to the University of Minnesota and specifically Morris! Our new motto will be “We’re not worse than Harvard.”


  1. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    Our new motto will be “We’re not worse than Harvard.”

    [raising hand] may I suggest: “Harvard is as good as we are!”. keep the spin positive, drop the negatives.

  2. says

    (jeez, but I hate “legacies” — I saw too many brilliant undergrads fail to get into med school while their less competent, lazy peers sailed in on their parents’ status)

    Oh. I have to admit that I didn’t know medical schools had legacies. I guess I assumed that due to the nature of the work that would be considered problematic. Depressing to learn.

  3. Kevin Henderson says

    I believe 18% of Stanford’s 2021 admitted class had parents who did not attend or finish college. I am not sure about other universities, but that seems pretty good.

  4. Bill Buckner says

    One year one of our senior business students won $40M in the lottery. For that one year our freshly minted undergraduate business grads had a higher average income than freshly minted Harvard MBA grads. (Well, we assume so. Nobody actually checked.)

  5. Derek Vandivere says

    Luckily, I don’t measure the value of my life and my college education only by looking at my paycheck.

    Cornell’s the only public/private Ivy, as far as I know, but Dartmouth was begun as a school for Native Americans and I know they try to recruit in that community pretty heavily. That reminds me, there’s another Princeton dinner Friday; better dig out my Cornell tie.

  6. Derek Vandivere says

    What is interesting about the post, though, is it looks like the effect of the Ivy League old boy’s network isn’t very big. Or bigger than other alumni networks.

  7. robert79 says

    If I read this correctly, the average incomes of a Ivy-league grad and a non-Ivy grad are roughly the same. However I wonder about two things:

    1) How about the top achievers? If you look at big-name companies, often you will see that the CEO/CTO has an ivy-league degree. I can imagine that a good student in an elite school, or an elite student in a good school will both get a pretty decent job. But I suspect that in the rare case (rare… most elite schools may well suck at selecting elite students) that you match up an elite student with an elite school, wonders may happen.

    2) Income isn’t everything. I can imagine that the best students from elite schools go into academia, which isn’t known as being the best paying profession.

  8. wzrd1 says

    Wouldn’t a more accurate motto be, “Your outcome will be equal to Harvard, but your student loan bills will be far less lordly”?

  9. jrkrideau says

    (jeez, but I hate “legacies”

    I’m from Canada and after hearing about “legacies” a few years ago, I still have a problem a)believing in them and b) figuring out how they work.

    Hum a bit like US primaries, now that I think of it.

  10. jrkrideau says

    @ robert79

    How about the top achievers?

    Check their socio-economic level when they arrive at university. They probably have had all sorts of advantages that a poor minority student would not have had plus during vacations and after graduation they can build up brownie points with heroic volenteering and unpaid internships etc.

    They are also likely to have the financial security to take risks or wait for opportunities whereas a poor student may have to take whatever is available.

    OTOH, the minority student is sweating over a hot grill uring the vacations and even perhaps during the school year at a fast food place to have spending money or even eating money—I am assuming most minority students to the ‘elites’ are on scholarships.

    Still, I am not surpised that the most selective schools really do make an extraordinary difference in life earnings for “black and Hispanic students”.

    The ‘elites’ are cherry-picking the very best students academically and, probably by far, the most motivated students at their universities.

    Those students are being given an entré to a different world where they do make establish links and networks that are just not available at other universities.

    When your roommate or two or three of your best friends are the sons and daughters of the presidents of large multinational corporations or high-level public servants, it can change your world-view and confidence in dealing with such people. And when job hunting you can casually do some name-dropping. :)

  11. DonDueed says

    I wonder if the same holds true for the top STEM schools (like MIT and Cal Tech) vs the public universities. There are probably more “Cornells” in that category, though (such as Michigan).

    The problem is that it’s harder to quantify outcomes in those fields — papers? Patents? Nobels? I don’t think income alone would be as useful as it is in non-STEM careers.

  12. Derek Vandivere says

    #9 / Robert: My wife did Princeton undergrad, she has a PhD now, she works as a paintings restorer at one of the best museums on the planet (the Mauritshuis in the Hague, where Girl with a Pearl Earring lives). And she makes less than half of what I do with my bachelor’s degree in IT…so you may well have a point.

  13. anbheal says

    One caveat — these two papers looked at land-grant universities when they were the pride of every state outside of New England. My best friend in high-school transferred from Georgetown back to Wisconsin in 1981 and said there was no downtick in the quality of his education. Would he make that choice now, under the Scott Walker ravages? Will Iowa and Kansas and Indiana and Nebraska and Ohio, and those broad swaths of the Midwest in a frantic TeaParty race to become Arkansas, still deliver the quality of education that these students enjoyed in the late 70s and mid-90s?