For 50 years, economists have studied how much prestigious, selective colleges contribute to higher income later in life.
The latest take on this, from economists Stacy Berg Dale and Alan B. Krueger, looked at groups of adults who had similar SAT scores when they went to college, but went to schools that were more or less selective. They also had access to information about colleges the students were accepted to. Economists who have trod this ground before them suspected that it was elite college students’ intelligence, not their diplomas, that were valued by employers, and these economists used this method to isolate that issue.
The study covered adults’ earnings in 1995 who had gone to college in 1972, and covered 14,239 workers.
They found: “Students who attended more selective colleges do not earn more than other students who were accepted and rejected by comparable schools but attended less selective colleges.”
That’s not to say there was no difference between earnings and colleges, but it wasn’t based on selectivity. Students who went to say, Tulane, rather than University of North Carolina, made more money, even though their student bodies had similar SAT scores.
Why were costlier colleges a better predictor of higher incomes? The economists didn’t say. It could have been because their parents tended to make more money, and perhaps could network better for their children after graduation.
The economists had records from 30 colleges, including Wesleyan University and Yale in Connecticut, Williams and Smith in western Massachusetts, and Barnard and Columbia in New York. Only four public schools were included in the study: University of Michigan, University of North Carolina, Miami University (in Ohio) and Pennsylvania State University.
Of the sample, Bryn Mawr had the highest average SAT score in 1972 and Denison University had the lowest.
All of the colleges have become more selective in the generations since this study was done. For instance, in 1972, the average SAT at Wesleyan was 1260; two years ago, the median combined score for math and verbal was 1400.