Graduates of the nation’s four-year colleges and universities can expect a median annual salary of about $44,000 by the 10th year after they first enrolled in college, according to a Washington Post analysis of data from the Department of Education. By comparison, that number jumps to $84,000 for the top 10 percent of college grads.
But if we look only at a select group of elite colleges — say, the eight schools reportedly targeted by the defendants in the Department of Justice’s Operation Varsity Blues investigation — those numbers change dramatically. The median graduate of those schools (which include Georgetown, Stanford, UCLA, the University of San Diego, the University of Southern California, the University of Texas at Austin, Wake Forest and Yale) can expect to earn about $73,000 a decade after they first enroll. And those who finish in the top 10 percent at those schools typically earn about $161,000 — nearly double the income of the top 10 percent of graduates of the rest of the nation’s colleges.
One important caveat is that the data are derived from students who received some form of federal financial aid during their undergraduate years. The roughly 15 percent of students who don’t need assistance aren’t included in the calculations. If those students were included, it would likely shift these distributions upward, although it’s unclear whether that would result in a larger or smaller earnings gap between graduates of top schools and everyone else.
The graduates of top schools also have, on average, much higher earnings potential than graduates of other colleges. For starters, they have a much higher income ceiling. Therefore, the parents at the center of the admissions scheme, who include actors, lawyers, doctors and financiers, have every reason to expect their children to make their way to the top of that distribution upon graduation.
This doesn’t necessarily mean the elite schools provide a better education than other schools or that their students are more talented. Research shows, for instance, that students at the nation’s top schools tend to come from wealthier households to begin with. They benefit from their families’ resources and connections before, during and after college. Many academics have argued that elite colleges are better at reinforcing existing social hierarchies than they are at breaking them.
But elite universities are, by definition, difficult to get into. A family accustomed to using its wealth and prestige to open doors may feel stymied by, say, standardized testing requirements that depend (on paper at least) solely on a student’s ability, and not on his social status. So if a parent already has provided the best schooling and test prep that money can buy and performance is still underwhelming, then it’s conceivable he or she might start looking at other options.