Do School Rankings Matter?

Over at the New York Times education section, a debate stirs regarding the value of university selectivity, rank, and prestige. Indeed, at a time when competition for spots at America’s elite universities is heating up and admission percentages are plummeting, some may wonder if all this brouhaha borders on the ridiculous.  Martha O’Connell writes:

The key to success in college and beyond has more to do with what students do with their time during college than where they choose to attend. A long-term study of 6,335 college graduates published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that graduating from a college where entering students have higher SAT scores — one marker of elite colleges — didn’t pay off in higher post-graduation income. Researchers found that students who applied to several elite schools but didn’t attend them — either because of rejection or by their own choice — are more likely to earn high incomes later than students who actually attended elite schools.

O’Connell certainly has a point. Students who are bright, hard-working, and conscientious will no doubt do well in life, wherever they attend. After all, at the end of the day, any educational experience is only as valuable as the work and thought put into it by the participant. However, Century Foundation fellow Richard Kahlenberg begs to differ:

If you attend a highly selective college, the per pupil expenditure is $92,000, compared with just $12,000 at the least selective colleges. The richest colleges require students on average to pay just 20 percent of the total cost of college, compared with 78 percent at the least wealthy colleges.

In other words, highly selective universities have many more resources to offer their students. In terms of quality of experience, this certainly matters.

… a student is more likely to graduate from a selective institution than a less selective one, controlling for initial ability. For example, Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl’s Century Foundation study found that among students scoring between 1200 and 1300 on the SAT, 96 percent graduate from the most selective colleges, compared with 78 percent at the least selective. The chances of attending graduate school also increases if one attends a more selective than a less selective institution, controlling for student SAT scores…

…One study suggests almost all of the higher earnings can be attributed to the talent of incoming students (as opposed to the value added by the college) but most studies find the wage boost provided by selective institutions themselves to be between 5 percent and 20 percent.

In our view, there are a plethora of benefits to attending a selective university. The unparalleled number of career and educational opportunities available, the quality of one’s peers, and the statistically demonstrated economic contributions  are all good reasons for attending. In short, attending a selective university may not fundamentally change one’s life, but it is no doubt an excellent experience that will help an individual thrive.

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