College Selectivity and Income

Graduates of the most selective institutions earn more -- even when controlling for factors that earlier made some doubt such findings -- but maybe not as much more as many think.

August 22, 2016
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With regularity, various groups issue reports on the colleges whose graduates earn the highest postgraduation salaries. Typically, those are colleges that are among the most competitive in admissions. The Obama administration's College Scorecard, while not ranking colleges, includes a postgraduation earnings figure that many others have used to compare colleges. Harvard University graduates, per the federal database, are earning on average $87,200 10 years after entering college, while the figure of nearby University of Massachusetts at Boston is just under $46,000.

Such data result in countless clickbait articles such as "The Best Five Colleges to Attend if You Want to Be a Millionaire." (Spoiler alert: Harvard is on the list, UMass Boston is not.) But there is another category of popular article on colleges and success in life that might be summarized by this headline: "Forget Harvard and Stanford. It Really Doesn’t Matter Where You Go to College."

Skeptics of the Ivy-or-bust articles (and the underlying research) have long pointed out that the colleges on the top of the earnings list are those that enroll students who are, on average, well prepared for college, come from wealthier than average families and have many advantages that students elsewhere lack. And skeptics of the "go anywhere" articles point to the apparent success of graduates of elite colleges. Is the earnings payoff the result of the most competitive colleges really offering the best education, or of their having the good fortune of educating students who are likely to succeed? Or is it some combination?

Research presented Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association finds that there is a notable earnings payoff for attending the most selective four-year colleges. When factors such as parental income, SAT scores, choice of major and many other measures are counted in, the gap is nowhere like the Harvard-UMass Boston gap. But a variety of socioeconomic and academic measures (outside the quality of instruction at elite colleges) have an impact on postgraduation wages. But it's also the case that, even controlling for all of those factors, attending a most selective college provides a payoff.

Further, the study finds significant differences in earnings at all colleges, with women earning less, and with degree program playing a major impact. As a result, the researchers are dubious of rankings of colleges by income of graduates -- including those based on data from the College Scorecard.

The authors are Paul Attewell, a professor of urban education at the City University of New York Graduate Center, and Dirk Witteveen, a doctoral student in sociology there.

They used statistics from the federal Baccalaureate and Beyond Longitudinal Study, and classifications from Barron's college guides, which groups colleges on selectivity based on SAT/ACT scores and the percentage of applicants admitted.

They then tried to control for all factors (other than the college experience itself) that might make some students more likely to earn more after graduation. They controlled for gender, age, race, parental income, parental education, SAT, college grade point average, college major, private/public institution, advanced degree after graduation and region of employment after college.

The results show that, after controlling for all those factors, graduates of the most competitive colleges earn (10 years after graduation) 8 percent more than graduates of very selective (but not the most competitive) colleges, 11 percent more than graduates of colleges that are competitive, and 19 percent more than graduates of colleges that are not competitive in admissions.

In other words, Ivy graduates benefit quite a bit from attending Ivies, but they are also benefiting from lots of other factors that do not necessarily come from the education they received -- since background of students seems to have a big impact on subsequent success. And while they earn more than others, the share of that total attributable to the college is not anything near the size one would think after using College Scorecard. So the "don't worry about going to an elite college" line is flawed, just as is the argument that elite colleges themselves lead to wealth, the research suggests.

Of course, many would say that career wealth is not the only (or even the most important) reason for going to college. The paper seems sympathetic to this point of view, but it also notes that many Americans are worried about whether borrowing for college will pay off, and many parents, politicians and others want to know that graduates will find jobs.

In keeping with their theme that attending an elite college matters but isn't all that matters, the authors provide a grid of average salaries 10 years out in 2003, that looks at both selectivity of college and college major. The data (which are not controlled for any of the data noted above) show the advantages of attending an elite college, the way degrees in some majors may help students at less elite colleges "catch up" to other graduates in salaries and the reality that those who don't major in lucrative fields aren't necessarily poor, as conventional wisdom would have it. A caution in reading the table is that the data are now from 13 years ago, and the salaries would presumably be higher today, and there may be more value associated with some majors.

Income by Major and Selectivity, 2003, 10 Years After Earning Bachelor's Degree

Major Most Selective Very Selective Selective Not Selective
Health related $91,571 $65,216 $60,782 $59,194
Business $82,633 $66,484 $66,123 $59,104

Math, comp sci, engineering

$79,811 $73,792 $67,966 $64,400
Social science / humanities $76,468 $61,581 $58,631 $52,740
Other $70,926 $58,344 $53,197 $44,852
Professional / vocational $66,727 $63,216 $58,281 $55,082
Life / physical sci $66,422 $60,376 $64,176 $51,841
Education $61,335 $47,335 $42,876 $40,150

Attewell noted all kinds of significant figures in the above table. For some graduates, being in a lucrative major compensates for being in a less competitive college (an argument made by Anthony Carnevale of Georgetown University). Social science and humanities graduates may not be at top, but they are doing well.

The bottom line, Attewell said, is to remember all the factors that seem to affect economic success. And given that women are paid less, regardless of institution or major, and that many other socioeconomic factors seem to have some impact, he said that people should be dubious of all the claims about colleges or majors by themselves predicting economic success.

At the same time, he said, it's wrong to argue that it makes no difference where one enrolls.

"There are many fine colleges below the top Ivies and privates, and many of those are very hard to get into, but the graduates of the most selective colleges, like the Ivies and other top 20 colleges, do get considerably better-paying jobs. A very smart, hardworking student who gets into a college below the very top level of selectivity does not earn the same as one who gets into one of the most selective colleges," he said. "This explains, perhaps, why there is such an intense or frantic competition to get into those very top-ranked colleges. It has substantial implications for future earnings."


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