Does Going To a Top University Make a Difference?

Helicopter parenting your kids to Harvard

Parents will know that as soon as the their child is born, they subconsciously plan their child’s path to Harvard, MIT, Oxford, Cambridge or one of the other top universities. The thinking goes that by attending a top university, a world of opportunities will open up especially in the jobs market.

Earnings data shows that people who attended an Ivy League university eventually earn an average $70,000 compared to non-Ivy leaguers who earn $35,000. The question is whether the top university transformsthe student into the higher earner or would the student have become a higher earner anyway?

Application not attendance to Ivy League matters

A bunch of Princeton academics looked into this and found a surprising conclusion. They tracked the earnings of people who attended a top US university, and as expected they did find that attendance was associated with higher earnings. On the surface then, the top university did enhance one’s earning power. But they added a twist to their study.

They looked at a measure of the students own sense of their ability. They did this by looking at which  universities the student applied to. So someone who applied to top universities (Harvard, MIT etc) perceived themselves to be of high ability. By incorporating this factor, they found that students with similar high-school (SAT) scores and the mere fact of applying to a top university was all that determined subsequent earnings. Even if they were rejected by the Ivy League, they would still earn the same as someone who was accepted. 

Performance plus motivation

So high school results are important to measure academic skill, but university or more specifically the choice of universities is a measure of motivation. And it is this combination of performance (SAT scores, A-Levels) and motivation (university applications) that determines earnings success. It doesn’t matter then whether one attended the top university  or not. This doesn’t mean that you should force your kids to apply, but rather one needs to instil in them a drive and motivation for success.

The exception

The big caveat in their work was that people from ethnic minority backgrounds or with parents who have little education did benefit from attending the top university. It seems the access to new  networks made a difference to these demographics.


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