Does It Matter Where You Go To College? The Answer: It Depends

Jan 3, 2019
Originally published on January 4, 2019 9:17 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Here's a question to ponder. Does it really make a difference where you go to college? According to Derek Thompson, it depends. He's a staff writer at The Atlantic and has been tracking the research on this question. It's particularly relevant right now for prospective students about to make this very decision. We started in our conversation talking about the basic assumption that the more elite the university, the better your salary prospects are when you get out.

DEREK THOMPSON: Well, first I should just say that I shared everyone else's assumption. I mean, if you count up all of the billionaires in the U.S. and a lot of the president's Supreme Court justices, they are disproportionately coming from America's elite institutions. So you'd think, yes, of course, it matters. But sometimes, as economics shows us, that which appears obvious is not in fact true. So in 2002, there was a very famous paper by the economists Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger that came to the startling conclusion that for the vast majority of students, if you controlled for the characteristics before they attended those elite institutions, they couldn't find any effect that the elite institutions had themselves.

Most people who either get into Harvard or who are on the bubble of getting into Harvard are essentially of Harvard quality, anyway, no matter where they go to school. So by the time they enter the workforce in their 20s and 30s, they're essentially earning a Harvard salary. So essentially, the way that I sum this up when I talk to students, and especially the students now who are sweating these thin or fat packages of all the schools that they applied to, it matters much more the person you become at 18 than the institution you graduate from at 22.

MARTIN: I understand, though, there is some newer research that looked more closely at the impact of race and gender, which matters here, right? What does that say?

THOMPSON: That's right. Late last year, a new study from economists examined the exact same data set and came to two very interesting conclusions. First, among men, the study found no relationship between college selectivity and long-term earnings. No Harvard effect. But for women, attending a school that's more selective - made them more likely to earn more and less likely to get married.

So what it seems to find is that going to a really, really elite school, for women, makes them more likely to devote themselves to a career before they get married, delay marriage and childbirth itself, and then to work more even after you get married.

So you could sort of sum this up by saying that the effect of going to an elite school for women isn't so much that it makes them more productive per hour. It's that it makes them work more hours. It makes them think more about a career and the way that they should give that career preference over having a family in their late 20s and early 30s.

MARTIN: OK. So what about race?

THOMPSON: So in race, both papers came to the exact same conclusion. They found that for people who come from lower-income families or who aren't white, attending an elite institution like Harvard or Stanford or Duke has a big effect on earnings. And so the way that I think about this is, like, all right. These minority students, these lower-income students, they're listening to the same professors. They're sitting in the same chairs and taking the same tests as their whiter or richer peers.

So what exactly is happening? Well, what I think is happening is that if you're a kid from a high-income family, your parents already have a really rich network of internships and entry-level jobs they can plug you into no matter where you go to school.

MARTIN: Right.

THOMPSON: But if you come from a lower-income family that has less socioeconomic status then the college itself is serving as the plug into these higher-earning parts of the economy.

MARTIN: What does this mean for universities that are prioritizing diversity right now?

THOMPSON: I think it's really important that they try harder. If you look right now at the socioeconomic makeup of the most elite institutions in the United States, they are not representative of the U.S. They are representative of the already affluent. So these elite institutions have the ability to be factories of social mobility. They can take low-income and minority students and turn them into extremely high-earning adults.

But for the most part, they reserve their seats for students who are going to be affluent, anyway. They have the ability to be incredible duplicators of the American dream, but they are not in fact achieving that end.

MARTIN: Derek Thompson, staff writer at The Atlantic magazine. Derek, thanks so much.

THOMPSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.