Yes, Where You Go To College Matters

College Choice Matters, Ivy League, College Admissions Matter
Where you go to college matters. While you may not want to hear it, it doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

Originally Published on October 24, 2019:

There’s a common refrain in elite college admissions. It goes like this: “It doesn’t matter where your child goes to college. All that matters is that your child is happy.”

And while the refrain is sweet, the argument is as ridiculous in 2023 as it was in 1993. After all, a student can be happy at an elite university just as a student can be unhappy at a non-selective university. This truth leads us to another refrain: “What exactly does this have to do with the price of tea in China?”

Does Where You Go to College Matter?

The fact is students who attend elite universities have higher earning potential than their peers who graduate from less selective institutions.

In a piece published by Maureen Downey in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on economic outlook after attending Ivy League schools (or similarly selective institutions), she writes, “Economist Raj Chetty found attendance at Ivy League and highly select campuses…provides a greater economic payoff for poor children than rich ones.”

The piece continues, “‘If you’re a rich kid, attending an Ivy Plus college rather than no college at all increases your odds of making it into the top income quintile as an adult earner by a factor of four. So you do get an economic boost from your college education, but it’s not a huge one,’ writes [journalist Paul] Tough. ‘If you’re a poor kid, though, attending an Ivy Plus college rather than no college is truly life-changing. It increases your odds of making it into the top income quintile by a factor of fourteen.'”

There are Happy and Unhappy Students on Every College Campus

We at Ivy Coach understand and appreciate that in our “everyone is a winner” climate, the parents of students who don’t earn admission to highly selective colleges often say it doesn’t matter where students go to college. Instead, all that matters is that they’re happy. 

If that soothes their egos, we’re all for such thinking. But, to cut through the nonsense, it does matter where you go to college. Sorry, Malcolm Gladwell, we’ve read every one of your brilliant books, but your arguments, while absolutely gripping and always worthy of the purchase, are often based only on anecdotes — and not hard data.

The Top 25 Colleges That Pay Off the Most

Colleges That Pay Off the Most

CNBC Make It study also analyzed data to determine the top 50 private colleges that pay off the most. Those schools are listed below with their corresponding 2023 US News & World Report ranking. Note how the vast majority — nearly all of them, in fact — are among America’s most highly selective institutions.

  1. Stanford University (#3, National Universities)
  2. Princeton University (#1, National Universities)
  3. University of Chicago (#6, National Universities)
  4. California Institute of Technology (#9, National Universities)
  5. Harvard University (#3, National Universities)
  6. Yale University (#3, National Universities)
  7. Columbia University (#18, National Universities)
  8. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (#2, National Universities)
  9. Pomona College (#3, Liberal Arts Colleges)
  10. Duke University (#10, National Universities)
  11. Washington and Lee University (#11, Liberal Arts Colleges)
  12. Vanderbilt University (#13, National Universities)
  13. Dartmouth College (#12, National Universities)
  14. Olin College of Engineering (Unranked)
  15. Rice University (#15, National Universities)
  16. Williams College (#1, Liberal Arts Colleges)
  17. University of Pennsylvania (#7, National Universities)
  18. Bowdoin College (#6, Liberal Arts Colleges)
  19. Webb Institute (Unranked)
  20. Brown University (#13, National Universities)
  21. Haverford College (#18, Liberal Arts Colleges)
  22. Swarthmore College (#4, Liberal Arts Colleges)
  23. The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art (#2, Regional Colleges North)
  24. Bates College (#25, Liberal Arts Colleges)
  25. Wesleyan University (#18, Liberal Arts Colleges)

Colleges with High Earning Potential

In addition, PayScale published a 2021-2022 college salary report. That ranking of universities with their corresponding mid-career pay is listed below. If the school was not listed above, its 2023 US News & World Report ranking is also cited.

  1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology ($167,200)
  2. Harvey Mudd College ($166,600, #29, Liberal Arts Colleges)
  3. Princeton University ($161,500)
  4. United States Naval Academy ($160,100, $6, Liberal Arts Colleges)
  5. Stanford University ($156,500)
  6. Harvard University ($156,200)
  7. Babson College ($155,400, Unranked)
  8. Santa Clara University ($154,700, #55, National Universities)
  9. United States Military Academy ($154,300, #9, Liberal Arts Colleges)
  10. University of Pennsylvania ($153,100)

The Colleges That Pay Off the Most Are Highly Selective

As Abigail Hess writes in another piece for CNBC on the colleges that pay off the most, “The top 10 private U.S. colleges on our list, in particular, provide a significant premium for students that attend. But there’s a catch: They’re all extremely difficult to get into.”

For the Class of 2026, as but a few examples, the overall acceptance rates stood at 5% for Brown, 3.73% for Columbia, 3.19% for Harvard, 4.47% for Yale, and 6.24% for Dartmouth. Yes, these schools are “extremely difficult to get into.”

The Critics of Attending Top Colleges Are Often Hypocrites

So to the folks who say, “It doesn’t matter where your child goes to college. All that matters is that your child is happy,” smile at them and nod politely.

Similarly, when a high school counselor at The Derryfield School in New Hampshire pens entire op-eds lamenting how going to an elite university is essentially overrated, check out his Twitter feed. Note the young person featured prominently in the Yale t-shirt in his profile photo. Note the schools featured prominently on the high school counselor’s own school’s college counseling website.

So, yes, those folks who argue that going to a top college is overrated are often hypocrites. They may suggest it doesn’t matter where you go to college, but that doesn’t mean they even believe their hollow words — and the data certainly doesn’t back up their assertion.


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  • elizabeth venturini says:

    Yes. It does matter. All of my international families care about rankings, brand name, and the prestige of the school. If a school is not one of the top 50 on US News and World Report they won’t even consider it.

  • Jefferson Bowen says:

    @elizabeth venturini, I’d submit that international families feel that way because the odds of their kids getting admitted to elite schools are much lower than USA citizens and human nature dictates that people always equate scarcity with value. That’s not always true.

  • Joe H. says:

    I find this argument to be very elitist and not uncanny for someone who attended an Ivy League School. The Ivy League is seen as the golden gates from heaven that narrow peoples life choices into a dichotomy between working minimum wage and earning 300k+ a year and causes people to not emotionally develop as they spend their youth trying to “make it big”. Everyone knows the Ivy League and other selective schools rarely admit anyone from outside their social circle of rich and well connected families. The truth is that despite the COVID-19 pandemic and transitions to a different lifestyle, anyone through hard work,dedication, and passion can succeed in the United States. Talented people that graduated from lower-tier universities have developed business strategies to help our country adjust to the “new normal” and charter the path to the unknown future. It’s the american way. And also, due to the ongoing pandemic,it’s unlikely higher education will see a revival as people are reconsidering attending private and public colleges in record numbers; Who want’s to pay $55k/year to watch zoom lectures, even if they get financial aid? It won’t make a difference. So go ahead, tell people that where they go matters, you’re unlikely to get many people from your elitist academia bubble.

    • Wes says:

      I completely agree, Joe. Even in the very study that this author referenced by AJC, it states, “Raj Chetty found attendance at Ivy League and highly select campuses — an elite grouping he dubbed Ivy Plus — provides a greater economic payoff for poor children than rich ones.” First, this ISN’T TALKING ABOUT ONLY THE IVY LEAGUE! It is talking about a group of selective schools, a group which I could not find because the study was poorly cited and I was unable to even find it. Second of all, this study shows that yes, these schools CAN help you significantly… IF YOU ARE POOR. The article ALSO says that even the SLIGHT economic advantage given to RICH people is being compared to NO COLLEGE AT ALL, NOT to another college not in the Ivy League. It is almost as if ivycoach sells college admissions help SPECIFICALLY for Ivy League schools, and will show misleading data to push their own agenda.

      Most people who read this article went to Harvard, but have nothing to show for it, so the only achievement they can actually brag about is going to Harvard. These same people also look at the only article that shows up to support their perspective, so I guess Harvard hasn’t taught them much about bias, either.

      Rant Over. Wes Out.

  • Maude says:

    UChicago is a great school but their salary potential- in most studies- is far from congruent with their reputation mostly attributed to graduates interest in academic fields). I have never seen it mentioned in the too 25 in most surveys, but here it is #3? Another school is Washington and Lee. Suspicions arise from that ranking to the fox the average family income at that school is a quarter of $1 million. Naturally if you’re a part of the richest student body in the country you’re going to have more money as an adult- either by inheriting it or getting a job that you probably didn’t deserve. Verdict: Flawed study.

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