Paying for Prestige: a Brief Look Into Selective Education



In 2019, an educational services company Cengage asked 2,500 college students who were about to graduate or had just graduated how long they thought it would take them to pay off their student loans. The average response was six years. The actual answer? Around 20, according to a 2013 study conducted by One Wisconsin Institute, a research group that focuses on public issues such as education and fair taxation.

This study points to a devastating misunderstanding of college in our society. In American culture, college admission is routinely ritualized with ecstatic screams from parents and the flaunting of colorful university merch. But truthfully, most of these adolescents are celebrating one of the largest debt sentences they will ever get.

The question is, does a degree justify the mind-boggling cost? The Federal Reserve thinks so, according to research that was conducted in 2019. It was found that those with a degree earn an average of $78,000 annually compared to $45,000 for those without.

Whether or not it matters if that degree comes from a prestigious school seems to be a different story. In 2014, economists Alan Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale looked at 19,000 graduates to find out if the prestige of a college really affected its students’ career earnings. They concluded that the impact of the institution attended was “generally indistinguishable from zero” when controlling for factors such as economic background, GPA, and standardized test scores. However, there was an exception from minorities such as black and Hispanic students from lower-income backgrounds. For these students, shooting for Harvard University or UCLA proved to be a valuable endeavor.

For others, it appears that a high school GPA may be a better indicator of career earnings. In the first study of its kind, a team of researchers at the University of Miami found that “a one-point increase in high school GPA raises annual earnings in adulthood by around 12 percent for men and 14 percent for women” after analyzing over 10,000 individuals in 2014. In other words, the actual skills that someone can bring with them throughout their career may mean more than a stamp of ivy league approval.

Going to a selective college won’t make you like your job or your life more either, according to a study published in 2014 by Purdue University and Gallup – an analytics company. The researchers found that life and work satisfaction were independent from the selectivity of the college attended.

It seems that while we as a society should continue to work towards earning a degree, we may benefit from thinking very carefully about how much we are willing to pay for prestige.