NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

How Important Is An Elite University Degree?

December 14, 1999

A new study questions whether it's worth the high price to attend an elite college. The report, by the National Bureau of Economic Research, says being talented enough to get into an elite school is more important than actually attending one.

Even the study's critics say the researchers, Alan Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale, have overcome a problem that skewed the results of previous studies: figuring out if graduates were making more money because they attended a prestigious school or because they were smart and ambitious in the first place.

Here's how they overcame the problem:

  • They measured 1995 earnings of students who enrolled in college in 1976, then matched about 6,300 students into sets determined by the caliber of school to which they applied.
  • The schools were ranked based on SAT scores of incoming freshmen.
  • The matched sets of students included some who were accepted at top schools (average freshman SAT of 1,200), but chose to attend less selective ones (with an average of 1,000).
  • Researchers could then compare, for example, a student who attended an Ivy League college with one who was admitted there but attended a school with lower SAT scores.

By 1995, average earnings for the two students were about the same, around $93,000.

The study contradicts one published in 1995 which found men who attended top schools earned wages about 20 poercent higher than otherwise identical men who attended the worst schools in the study.

Critics of the study raised several questions, noting it's unfair to measure schools simply by how much their graduates make, and that the focus on SATs and selectivity as measurements are too narrow, neglecting such important factors as the quality of the faculty.

Source: Patrick Barta, "College vs. Ability Debate Is Rekindled," Wall Street Journal, December 14, 1999.


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