Where You Go Isn’t Where You’ll Be

Seven of the nine Supreme Court Justices went to Ivy League schools, and one attended Stanford.

Seven of the nine Supreme Court Justices went to Ivy League schools, and one attended Stanford. More broadly, a glance at any group of highly successful individuals, whether it is politicians, lawyers, or academics, will reveal that the vast majority attended extremely selective colleges. It is no wonder, then, that when parents look at these statistics, they conclude that admission to one of these schools is necessary for success—a golden ticket per se. While the evidence seems overwhelming, new academic research suggests that our parents’ intuition may be off base. For someone accepted at both Harvard and Rutgers, the choice between these two schools may have little bearing on their success later in life.

Obviously, attending a higher-ranked college is correlated with greater professional and economic success. The higher ranked the school, the higher the salary and professional status on average. However, there are two components involved in explaining this relationship. One component is that attending a better school may provide better education and a more extensive professional network, playing a causal role in one’s success. The second component is that better schools are more selective: they choose students who show a greater potential for success, independent of the school they will attend. Social scientists and statisticians refer to the former as the treatment effect and to the latter as the selection effect. An applicant should only be interested in the treatment effect when seeking the school that will provide the best preparation for their future. However, popular college rankings such as U.S. News & World Report cannot distinguish between these two effects, potentially misdirecting applicants. In fact, these rankings are of no use to prospective students who must make informed choices on where to pursue further education.

While newspaper rankings may be of no use in separating the selection and treatment effects, recent social science research has made important progress in quantifying them. By analyzing students who graduated from Texas public high schools between 1999 and 2008, Professors Jack Mountjoy and Brent R. Hickman, of the University of Chicago and Washington University respectively, found that the college a student chose to attend had no effect on their salary 10 years after graduation. How did these researchers separate the selection effect from the treatment effect? The insight was to focus only on students who were accepted by multiple universities and compare the outcomes of those who attended the higher-ranked universities with those who attended the lower-ranked universities. Because students were accepted to both universities, the selection effect should not play a role. If 100 students are accepted at both a top school, school A, and a middle-ranked school, school B, the findings of Mountjoy and Hickman show that those who choose to attend school A will have the same mean income ten years after graduation as those who attend school B. Of course, this is only one study, and its findings should be taken with grain of salt, but the reputation of the researchers and the comprehensiveness of the data make the statistical analysis very credible.

What does this mean for us? Most significantly, this research suggests that we should worry much less about the rankings of the schools we plan to attend. Those of us who don’t get into our “reach” choice should take solace in the fact that attending a slightly less selective school will probably have absolutely no effect on our career prospects. Rather than rankings, we should focus on whether the school matches well with our personal ambitions and needs. For example, we could pay more attention to a college’s atmosphere, as some of us can tolerate larger classes and a competitive environment while others strongly prefer a more cooperative style of learning through group work. Those who have a concrete idea of their academic interests should select schools based on the majors and courses offered, the faculty, and the available extra-curricular activities. More generally, we should consider opting out of the rat race and focusing instead on the schools that will enhance our quality of life. Unfortunately, serious studies such as Mountjoy and Hickman’s receive far less media attention than silly rankings in the popular press and, as a result, seniors will continue to agonize unnecessarily about college admission.