Does It Matter Where You Go to College?

Derek Thompson:

But what appears obvious may not be true. In November 2002, the Quarterly Journal of Economics published a landmark paper by the economists Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger that reached a startling conclusion. For most students, the salary boost from going to a super-selective school is “generally indistinguishable from zero” after adjusting for student characteristics, such as test scores. In other words, if Mike and Drew have the same SAT scores and apply to the same colleges, but Mike gets into Harvard and Drew doesn’t, they can still expect to earn the same income throughout their careers. Despite Harvard’s international fame and energetic alumni outreach, somebody like Mike would not experience an observable “Harvard effect.” Dale and Krueger even found that the average SAT scores of all the schools a student applies to is a more powerful predictor of success than the school that student actually attends.

This finding suggests that the talents and ambitions of individual students are worth more than the resources and renown of elite schools. Or, less academically, the person you’re becoming at 18 is a better predictor of your future success than the school you graduate from at 22. The takeaway here: Stress out about your habits and chill out about college.

That’s kind of inspiring. It also implies that all the angst and time devoted to the infamous admissions process is a wasteful pageant for the vast majority of its participants. Could that really be true? Or were Dale and Krueger off somehow?