Is Harvard Worth It?

| Thu May 12, 2011 2:08 PM EDT

What's the value of a college education? Quite a bit, if the wage premium for college grads means anything. But maybe it doesn't. After all, smart kids go to college, and smart kids are going to earn more regardless. Maybe college doesn't have any independent effect at all. Annie Lowrey explores that question here.

But what about elite colleges? Are they really worth the skyrocketing prices they charge? Here we have much better data. A few months ago Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger updated a paper they wrote a decade ago that examined the earnings of college grads, and what they found was that elite universities don't seem to provide much benefit over lesser universities. What they did was clever: instead of just looking at SAT scores and college selectivity, they also looked at which colleges students originally applied to. David Leonhardt summarizes:

Once the two economists added these new variables, the earnings difference [of elite universities] disappeared. In fact, it went away merely by including the colleges that students had applied to — and not taking into account whether they were accepted. A student with a 1,400 SAT score who went to Penn State but applied to Penn earned as much, on average, as a student with a 1,400 who went to Penn.

“Even applying to a school, even if you get rejected, says a lot about you,” Mr. Krueger told me. He points out that the average SAT score at the most selective college students apply to turns out to be a better predictor of their earnings than the average SAT score at the college they attended.1

I'm a pretty good example of this phenomenon. I ended up graduating from Cal State Long Beach, and I did pretty well during my pre-blogging career. But what schools did I apply to? Answer: Caltech, Stanford, and UC San Diego. That, it turns out, was a better predictor of my future success than which school I eventually ended up at.

For what it's worth, then, high school seniors probably shouldn't worry quite as much about which university they attend as they do. If you're good enough to get into Harvard, you'll probably do just as well if you end up going to the University of Michigan instead. Having a degree is important (though even here the jury is out on exactly why it's important), but having an elite degree probably isn't. If you can only afford to go to a state university, don't fret about it too much. You'll do fine anyway.

1It's worth noting that this isn't universally true. It's true for white and middle-class kids, but minority and low-income students seem to benefit at least somewhat from attending elite universities.