Photo Illustration by Mary Kocol

Heaven's Gate

By Dante Chinni
Sunday, April 2, 2006

Every striver mother and father knows the rules when it comes time to shop for a college. These are so deeply embedded in the subconscious of affluent, highly educated parents that their wisdom is rarely questioned.

If your kid is bright enough, you shoot for the Ivies, Stanford or MIT. If those are out of reach, you aim your child at other prestigious private institutions -- Duke, the University of Chicago, Georgetown or some other brand-name, liberal arts college that doesn't let just anybody in the door. If all else fails, you might consider a top-ranked state university, but only as a last resort.

Money should be no object, not when it comes to something as important as your child's education. Paying those tuition bills may sabotage your ability to save for retirement or necessitate a second mortgage on your house. But, in the end, your goal should be to send your kid to the most exclusive, impressive option available. The payoff is obvious: In a society that likes to think of itself as a meritocracy, the Ivies and other selective private schools offer a shortcut to the top. They promise an instant pedigree, future wealth and an opportunity to mix with the country's next generation of movers and shakers.

But what if all those calculations and assumptions are wrong? What if all those Ivy graduates whose parents shelled out $150,000 or even $200,000 for their undergraduate degrees could have done just as well if they'd gone somewhere else? Somewhere much cheaper?

Research implies that is actually the case. According to these recent studies, when you do a cold, hard analysis -- removing family dreams and visions of class rings -- the Ivies and other elite private schools simply aren't worth the money. The answer isn't conclusive, and there are skeptics -- at the Ivies and elsewhere. But at the least, the research should give parents pause and prompt them to conduct a cost-benefit analysis before steering their child to an elite private college.

The Benefits

THE DEBATE ABOUT THE VALUE of an exclusive education is not new. For years, many people, particularly those at the high-end public universities (the public Ivies), have argued that the value of four years at an elite private school is overstated. The conventional wisdom on those schools is more the result of long-held impressions than actual results, they say.

In the late 1990s, two academics decided to measure whether those elite private schools really delivered on what they promised. Alan Krueger, an economist at Princeton, and Stacy Dale, a researcher with the Andrew Mellon Foundation, compared 1976 freshmen at 34 colleges -- from Yale, Stanford and Wellesley to Penn State and Miami University of Ohio. They separated out a subgroup of those freshmen who had applied to the same pool of elite colleges. They then took that subgroup, now full of elite and public school grads, and compared their wages in 1995.

The findings? The income levels of these graduates were essentially the same, though very poor students seemed to get a slight benefit from an elite private education. For most students, there was no real post-college earning benefit gained from an elite undergraduate degree. The better predictor was where the students had applied.

"Essentially, what we found was the fact that you apply to those kinds of elite places means that you are ambitious, and you'll do well in life wherever you go to school," Dale says.

There is more to college than future earnings, Dale acknowledges, but measuring such things as life or job satisfaction would include factors far beyond college selection. In terms of cold measurement, the only statistic with true unbiased weight is earnings.

Other research has largely concurred with the findings of Krueger and Dale.

In their 2005 update of their book How College Affects Students, two professors who study higher education, Ernest Pascarella of the University of Iowa and Patrick Terenzini of Penn State, raise similar points. The book, a synthesis of three decades of research, finds that "little consistent evidence suggested that college selectivity, prestige or educational resources had any net impact in such areas as learning, cognitive and intellectual development, the majority of psychosocial changes, the development of principled moral reasoning, or shifts in attitudes and values." In other words, you might be a different person when you leave college, but not because of how hard it was to get into the school you chose.

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company