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Are Top-Tier Colleges Worth It?


For high school students (and their parents), attendance at the nation’s most elite universities has long been seen as a golden ticket to prosperity and lifetime job security. But is that golden ticket really worth the price? The New York Times has questions:

While some students will be able to go to college only if they receive financial aid and others have the resources to go wherever they want, most fall into a middle group that has to answer this question: Do they try to pay for a college that gave them little financial aid, even if it requires borrowing money or using up their savings, because it is perceived to be better, or do they opt for a less prestigious college that offered a merit scholarship and would require little, if any borrowing? It’s not an easy decision.

The average cost of tuition at a private college is $29,056. That high price is worth it only if it guarantees significantly higher wages post graduation. Unfortunately, two studies have found that that’s not necessarily the case: Students of equal intelligence perform about the same economically, regardless of the school they attend—with one important exception: students from disadvantaged backgrounds benefit from attending a more elite school. For the rest, an elite degree doesn’t seem to offer much beyond prestige.

This news isn’t entirely surprising to us. Particularly gifted students have always found ways to succeed regardless of the school they attend. Indeed, for a special few, college isn’t even necessary at all—a fact the Thiel fellowship, which offers $100,000 to young entrepreneurs in lieu of college, taps into.

Even if there were some sort of special advantage to an elite education, given the changes sweeping through higher ed today we would expect that secret ingredient to leak in the future. The rise of MOOCs and other online courses will make it easier for a wider range of students to gain access to top-flight courses, judged on a “stuff learned” basis.

The average student still benefits from attending college, but shelling out big bucks for a degree from a big-name school may not be worth it if you’re looking for future earning potential.

[Image courtesy of Shutterstock]

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  • Luke Lea

    Places like Harvard and Yale — those are elite gateway institutions. You can’t measure their worth in dollars and cents. It’s about opening doors and forming lifelong networks in the must influential circles of society. If you get a good education in the process, which is by no means assured, why that’s just an added bonus.

  • Anthony

    Every current Supreme Court Justice has a connection to Harvard or Yale; Justice Ginsburg attended Harvard and transferred to Columbia Law after her husband obtained a job in NYC. This is pretty incredible. There is not a single justice from Stanford, U of C, Penn etc, let alone a school outside of “the top ten.” This is in spite of the fact that fmr. Justice Stevens – who is an alumnus of Northwestern Law – has said that the law clerks that he has hired from somewhat less prestigious schools have done as good a job as his Harvard and Yale grads.

  • dmoelling

    Check out the distribution of Yale undergrad degrees. It’s on line. I was astonished that contrary to my expectations there were only handfuls of physics, language, women’s etc studies, geology, arts, and others. Our erstwhile masters are mostly in polysci and economics and history. The next group are future doctors and bioscience. No wonder students are paying big bucks to yet the entry ticket to a well paid life as functionaries and crony capitalists

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