How Important is Attending a Prestigious University?

As if the college application process wasn’t stressful enough, news broke out last week about a $25 million college admissions cheating scheme. The alleged scam aimed to get students admitted to elite universities as recruited athletes, even if they didn’t play sports, and help students cheat on or outsource their standardized college exams. Parents spent thousands, and sometimes millions, of dollars to ensure their children received guaranteed admission to their school of choice.

This scandal has ignited a national discussion about how wealth and privilege impact the college admissions process. But in addition, the scandal perhaps begs a different question. Are these prestigious colleges really worth it?

There have been numerous studies that demonstrate that attending an elite university does not inherently lead to more success, happiness, or better opportunities. Nowadays, whether you go to college definitely impacts your employment options. But where you go to college does not appear to be as important and matters far less than your academic performance and the skills you can show employers. Here are some research results:


In 1999, economists Alan Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale published a study that compared the earnings of graduates of elite colleges with those of “moderately selective” schools. The latter group was composed of people who had been admitted to an elite college but chose to attend a less prestigious school. The economists found that the earnings of the two groups 20 years after graduation differed little or not at all. A larger follow-up study, released in 2011 and covering 19,000 college graduates, reached a similar conclusion: job outcomes were unaffected in terms of earnings.

In 2014, a Gallup-Purdue University study of college graduates showed that the type of institution they attended mattered far less than what they experienced while attending when it came to being engaged at work and experiencing high well-being after graduation.

In 2015, a study from Brigham Young University and San Diego State University compared the earnings of individuals from schools with different selectivity rankings, controlling for their majors and their level of degree attainment 10 years after they completed undergrad. The study determined that for many career paths, it just doesn’t matter where a person got his or her education.

In his book, David and Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell’s research found that, if you attend the second or third most selective and rigorous choice on your list, you are more likely to outperform your peers. Gladwell’s research indicated that, if you graduate in the top percentage of your class, you are much more likely to succeed during your career – no matter how highly ranked your school is. Conversely, if you graduate in the middle or bottom half of your class, no matter how prestigious the school, you are less likely to be successful. It is the confidence gained from working hard and succeeding that propels you into the workforce ready to take on the world. For this reason, Gladwell recommends against an elite college.

If prestige isn’t important in selecting a college, what is?

When considering where to attend college, perhaps the most important consideration is financial cost. Many prestigious universities are so expensive that students are overburdened with debt upon graduation. Experts agree that a student’s total debt at graduation should be less than the student’s starting annual salary for their career field. This should be a very important factor in determining which school to attend.

In addition, teens should consider their values when determining which university to attend. Rather than the prestige of the college, teens should think about what’s most important in life to them and use those factors to determine the right institution for them. Factors might include happiness, purpose, adventure, wealth accumulation, knowledge, creative freedom, and honor. A school’s culture and distance from family are also important considerations.

Final Thoughts…

Ultimately, what a student gets out of a college is mainly determined by what they put into it. So before you worry about getting your teen into an Ivy League school, remember that what’s most important is what your teen will do, at college and in life, to keep improving their skills, to develop their character, and to remain persistent.

Although elite universities don’t seem to impact a teen’s future that much, whether or not they get a college education does. If you would like more information about the pros and cons of attending college, please read our previous blog, Is College Worth the Money?

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