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“Does It Matter Where You Go to College?” asked the title of a recent article in The Atlantic. It’s an “essential question” for those of us who work as college counselors.

How you answer depends on your answer to other, more fundamental questions. Does the value of a college education reside in the name on the diploma or the experience one has in college? What’s more important, going to college or going to a particular college? Is college selection objective or personal?

I have written previously about prestige and fit as competing worldviews. But is prestige versus fit a fair fight? Are those of us who believe in fit the college counseling equivalents of local businesses trying to survive against big-box stores and Amazon?

The nature of the college admissions process would suggest so. The Atlantic article points out that Americans spend half a billion dollars annually on independent educational consultants, most of them in search of the secret handshake that will give their children access to an “elite” college. Many of the games played by college admission offices to lower admit rates are grounded in the hope that the public will believe that the harder a college or university is to get in to, the better it must be.

College rankings and most media coverage of college admission promulgate the myth of prestige. Back in 2010, as my term as president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling was coming to an end, I was interviewed by Eric Hoover from The Chronicle of Higher Education about what I saw on the horizon for college admission. I talked about my belief that the experience one has in college is more important than where one goes. That comment was referred to by Jacques Steinberg in the New York Times' “The Choice” blog (which many of us miss) as something surprising that students, parents and journalists should remember.

That is not to say that there are no voices in the wilderness making the case for fit.

Back in the fall, I reported on a white paper from the nonprofit College Success, “A ‘Fit’ Over Rankings,” that argued that student engagement matters more than selectivity in determining both success and happiness.

That brings us to the recent Atlantic article, which references both the most thorough and famous study done on the relationship between where you go to college and success, the 1999 study conducted by economists Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger, and a new National Bureau of Economic Research paper co-authored by economists Suqin Ge from Virginia Tech, Elliott Isaac from Tulane and Amalia Miller from the University of Virginia.

Research on the benefits of attending an elite college has always used earnings as a proxy for success. Whether those are the same thing or whether earnings are just an easy metric is a topic for another time. There is also more recent research done by Anthony Carnevale at Georgetown suggesting that differences in earnings are related more to one’s major than the institution one attends.

What was revolutionary about Dale and Krueger’s research was that they compared individuals who attended elite colleges and universities with individuals who were admitted to the same institutions but chose not to enroll. What the study found was little difference in the earnings of both groups, suggesting that attending an elite college or university does not provide added value as assumed. It is not attending an elite college that makes you successful as much as having the qualities and credentials necessary to earn admission to an elite college.

Author Malcolm Gladwell later wrote about this issue for an article in The New Yorker, drawing a distinction between two kinds of institutions, “treatment-effect” institutions and “selection-effect” institutions. He used the Marine Corps as an example of a treatment-effect institution. Despite the longtime advertising campaign about the Marines “looking for a few good men,” Gladwell argues that Marines are not born but made. What produces a Marine is the regimen of training each goes through beginning with Parris Island.

Gladwell contrasted the Marine Corps with the modeling industry, which he describes as a selection-effect institution. He argues that one doesn’t train to become a model, but is rather selected based on the physical attractiveness an individual is born with.

Gladwell’s distinction is an interesting take on the debate over nature versus nurture, and may contradict the 10,000-hour rule he wrote about in his book Outliers that many interpret as claiming that genius is the result of 10,000 hours of sustained practice. It’s not clear whether Gladwell is suggesting that anyone can become a “genius” simply by putting in 10,000 hours of practice or whether genius is the result of natural talent developed by 10,000 hours of practice.

So how is the treatment-effect versus selection-effect distinction relevant for college admission? Gladwell argues that the common belief about elite colleges is that they are treatment-effect, that being around brilliant students, brilliant professors and the rarefied air of Harvard Yard combine to make Ivy League graduates successful. Borrowing on Dale and Krueger’s research, he argues that elite colleges are really selection-effect institutions.

Are the purported benefits of attending an elite college totally overblown, then? Not according to the new white paper by Ge, Isaac and Miller, “Elite Schools and Opting-In: Effects of College Selectivity on Career and Family Outcome.” Their research supports the conclusions of Dale and Krueger for males, but suggests that for women attending an elite college has benefits.

Ge, Isaac and Miller conclude that attending a more selective college or university (defined as one with average SAT scores 100 points higher) increases the probability of earning an advanced degree by 5 percent and earnings by 14 percent. Those increases are attributable to the fact that they are likely to stay in the work force longer and wait longer to marry, but the effects of college selectivity on earnings is significantly larger for married than single women.

Both the Dale and Krueger study and the new paper utilize the College and Beyond database of those who entered college in 1976, and it would be interesting to know how changes in society and college admission might impact the data and conclusions moving forward. How might the fact that elite colleges today are far more selective, or the fact that 58 percent of those earning college degrees today are female impact future results?

The new study focuses on benefits for women, but the Atlantic article also references a 2017 study that suggested that attending a selective college makes a significant difference for low-income and minority students by providing access to networking opportunities that students from upper-class backgrounds already have. Where those students go to college does make a difference, providing social mobility and transforming lives. Are elite colleges sufficiently looking for that kind of diversity?

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