On the Payoff to Attending an Elite College

Summary of working paper 7322
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Students who attend colleges with higher average tuition costs or spending per student tend to earn higher incomes later on.


In today's high-tech economy, just about everybody has gotten the message that it pays to get a college degree. What is less clear to many parents and their college-bound youngsters is whether it makes economic sense to attend an elite school with a total four-year price tag big enough to buy a nice suburban house in many parts of the country. Does the earnings return from a diploma with the name of an elite institution stamped on it justify the higher expense, or is the reputation of the college aristocracy vastly overblown, at least when it comes to subsequent income? It's a question that more and more economists are researching, while many parents and policymakers would like to know the answer.

Yet researchers have long found it difficult to tease out the labor market effects of college quality versus other characteristics that employers reward. The problem is that students who attend selective schools are likely to have higher earnings potential regardless of where they attend college for the very same reasons that they were admitted to the more selective schools in the first place. In a recent NBER Working Paper, Stacy Berg Dale and Alan Krueger try two novel approaches to solving this problem. In Estimating The Payoff To Attending A More Selective College: An Application of Selection On Observable and Unobservables (NBER Working Paper No. 7322) they use data from the College and Beyond Survey to match 6,335 students who were accepted and rejected by a comparable set of colleges in 1976. They then compare labor market outcomes in 1995 among students who had the same menu of choices, but among whom some attended more selective schools than others. They also use this data set and the National Longitudinal Survey of the High School Class of 1972 to estimate the impact on students' subsequent earnings of the average SAT scores of all the schools they applied to as well as the average SAT score of the school they attended.

They find that school selectivity, measured by the average SAT score of the students at a school, doesn't pay off in a higher income over time. "Students who attended more selective colleges do not earn more than other students who were accepted and rejected by comparable schools but attended less selective colleges," the researchers write. They also find that the average SAT score of the schools students applied to but did not attend is a much stronger predictor of students' subsequent income than the average SAT score of the school students actually attended. They call this finding the "Spielberg Model" because the famed movie producer applied to USC and UCLA film schools only to be rejected, and attended Cal State Long Beach. Evidently, students' motivation, ambition, and desire to learn have a much stronger effect on their subsequent success than the average academic ability of their classmates.

Still, they do find that some aspects of colleges are related to students' subsequent economic success, even after adjusting for the abilities of the students upon applying to college. For example, students who attend colleges with higher average tuition costs or spending per student tend to earn higher incomes later on. The internal real rate of return on college tuition for students who went to college in the late 1970s was a startlingly high 16 to 18 percent. But with college costs up sharply since then, returns have probably come down to a more normal range. The authors speculate that tuition may affect future earnings because schools with higher tuitions offer more resources or higher quality products to their students.

Finally, the results of this study suggest that no matter what measurement of college quality is used, the income gains from attending an elite college are highest for students from a disadvantaged background. "School admission and financial aid policies that have as a goal attracting students from more disadvantaged family backgrounds may raise national income, as these students appear to benefit most from attending a more elite college," they say. Their results are bound to play a role in the national debate over financial aid and affirmative action policies at the nation's premier schools.

-- Christopher Farrell