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Does Attending a More Prestigious College Increase Your Paycheck?

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The wall of pictures of seniors telling where they are going to college grows everyday. Many underclassman gaze in awe at the sheer variety of schools chosen, wondering, “where will I end up?” In today’s competitive market for jobs, it is important to select a school that will put you in the best position to be employed. But does selecting a more ‘prestigious’ school have anything to do with being hired and making money after graduating?

Prestige is measured in a variety of ways. College ranking sites, such as U.S. News and World Report, rank colleges in order of best overall programs and student experience. Ranking sites via major, such as for engineering, also rank the ‘prestige’ of certain programs. One school that may be top-end in engineering, such as Purdue University in Indiana, could be less highly-rated in English or the arts. New York University, for example, does not have as strong a technical program as it does a business program. Will going to one of these ‘strong’ programs really benefit you, though?

A study published in June 2015 by Eric Eide, Michael Hilmer, and Mark Showalter found that people majoring in business who attended more prestigious colleges earned 12% more money ten years after graduating than other business majors who attended less selective schools. Earnings were increased for social science, education, and humanities majors and slightly increased for engineers. Science majors had the smallest difference between earnings of those who attended more selective and less selective schools. Many science majors have similar requirements across a variety of schools, so employers know that a student with a degree in chemistry from Harvard has met similar requirements to someone in the same area of study from Clemson. According to The Atlantic, the authors mentioned other confounding variables that may have contributed to these findings, such as people going to more prestigious schools being more likely to get more advanced degrees.

“For those headed toward careers where elite networks rule, school choice is more important since selective schools provide access to companies and individuals necessary to further one’s career,” wrote Gillian B. White in an article for The Atlantic titled “Does Going to a Selective College Matter?” For example, Stanford’s computer science program has a direct line into the big-name companies of Silicon Valley such as Google and Facebook. Harvard has friends on Wall Street and Yale knows people on Capitol Hill. All of these resources can be vital for someone majoring in more connection-oriented fields such as business and political science.

Eide and Hilmer wrote in a Wall Street Journal article about their findings, saying that going to a prestigious school can often hurt the student.

“Families should also remember that even if students get into a chosen school, there’s no guarantee they’ll be able to pursue the major they want,” they wrote.

They also detailed the problems associated with “psychic costs,” saying that the stress a prestigious institution can put on students is often not worth the potentially hefty future paycheck.

“[M]any students who were at the top of their class in high school will find they are average or lower at a highly competitive institution or in a particularly challenging major,” wrote Eide and Hilmer.

In an article for PrepScholar, Justin Berkman wrote that lower income students may benefit from going to a more prestigious school because of the higher graduation rates at those schools, referencing a study done by Stacy Berg Dale and Alan B. Krueger. Berkman asserted that for middle to upper income students, going to mid-tier school rather than a top-tier school does not make a significant difference, but going to a lower-tier school rather than a top-tier school is where the discrepancy in earning can be found.

“The difference between graduating from Stanford and graduating from UCLA is probably minimal,” wrote Berkman. “However, there’s a much larger difference between Stanford and Cal State Los Angeles.

Other researchers have brought up the issue of cost of the institution in question as well. If students are drowning in debt after graduation, the higher salary they could be earning would be offset by their loans.

“Prestige does pay,” said Scott L. Thomas, sociology professor at Claremont, in an interview with the New York Times. “But prestige costs, too. The question is, is the cost less than the added return?”

So what’s the final verdict? Should high schoolers aspire to reach for the highest-tier institution they can? The answer is vague: it depends on their major, their psychological stability, and their family’s income. The most important part about choosing a college is something that cannot be quantified: enjoying where you are. In order for a school to be ‘worth it,’ students must feel comfortable there and want to succeed. If those qualities are met, students can find success beyond high school.

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The student news site of Blacksburg High School
Does Attending a More Prestigious College Increase Your Paycheck?