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Updated 10:00 AM April 10, 2006
 

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  Research
'Elite' college students don't earn higher pay or status

As high school seniors and anxious parents receive news from colleges this spring, a new study provides unexpected insights into the long-term impact of admissions decisions.

"'Elite' college students do not make more money than other college students, or hold higher status jobs in their 20s, 30s or 50s, the study shows.

"While many students from elite colleges enjoy successful careers, their success is not the result of attending elite schools," says U-M sociologist Jennie Brand, lead author of the study. "Instead, it's the result of characteristics such as scholastic achievement and parents' income that influence both the probability that they will attend an elite school and their future career outcomes."

The study, forthcoming in the journal Social Science Research, followed 1,733 men who graduated from Wisconsin high schools in 1957 and went to college within two years.

"One of the strengths of this study is that we were able to look at the outcomes up to 35 years after students graduated from high school—during their early-, mid- and late-careers," says Brand, a Robert Wood Johnson Health & Society Scholar who is affiliated with the Institute for Social Research and School of Public Health.

Taking a long-term approach yields some important information in the ongoing debate about how important it really is to attend a top college, she says.

Using a wide variety of relevant characteristics, including mental ability, high school grades, college preparatory programs and family background, Brand and co-author Charles Halaby of the University of Wisconsin matched students who attended elite schools to otherwise equivalent students who attended less-prestigious colleges.

Then they compared the actual effects of attending one type of college or the other and the potential effects of attending the type of college each student did not, in fact, attend.

To identify elite schools, the researchers used "Barron's Profiles." Colleges in the "most competitive" and "highly competitive" categories were considered elite. Among the schools were Lawrence University, Northwestern University, Dartmouth College, Carleton College, Wellesley College, Cornell University, Duke University and the University of Chicago.

Students who attended an elite college were about 6 percent more likely than other students to graduate from college and they were 12.5 percent more likely to earn an advanced degree. But using the potential outcome matching technique, researchers found that equivalent students who attended less selective colleges would have been four times as likely to graduate if they had attended elite schools.

In terms of occupational status and wages, elite college students showed no significant gains in their early, mid or late careers. In contrast, students who attended less selective schools would have had occupational status gains throughout their careers had they attended elite schools. These gains were significant—the difference, for example, between being a designer and an architect.

Brand cautions the analysis pertains to a single cohort of males who entered college in the early 1960s. "The market for higher education has shifted in the direction of greater selectivity," Brand says. "This process could tend to increase elite college effects, but the jury is still out on this."

According to Brand the findings also suggest the importance of outreach programs to encourage more students to attend elite schools. "Students who otherwise might not apply to or attend these schools are the ones who might obtain the most benefit from the experience," she says.

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