The payoff for a prestigious college degree is smaller than you think

"Prospective college students are trying to gauge whether a given college is worth the cost. This annual ritual is now fraught for students weighing whether to pay big dollars for what may turn out to be a lot of online lectures and Zoom chats. The stakes are especially high for students who’ve received the golden ticket to prestigious colleges where tuition can run $50,000 or more per annum.

After all, there’s a popular belief that a diploma from a prestigious college is key to future life success. That’s why admissions consultants can charge $200 or more per hour to help students get into elite universities. That’s why last year’s ‘Varsity Blues’ FBI sting found parents paying fixers to get their kids into USC and Georgetown.

Yet, upon a closer look, it’s not clear that the return lives up to the billing." …

This article makes a meaningful distinction concerning liklihood of graduation.

Those who attend the most selective schools are more likely to graduate college within 6 years.

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@Publisher, those who attend the most selective schools also tend to be the most academically elite as well.

Also yes, those schools also tend to provide much better fin aid.

To someone who is academically strong but to whom fin aid isn’t a concern, however, I don’t see why graduation rate is a concern except from a possible social/psychological standpoint (seeing friends drop out).


BTW, when it comes to monetary payoff, major and skills learned matter a lot more.


Agree that environment is a significant factor, but not the only factor with respect to graduation rates.

Honors Colleges & Honors Programs should be included in the category of most selective schools, in my opinion.

@PurpleTitan: with respect to your post #2 above: You asked & answered your own question in the last sentence. In my view, that is one reason why honors colleges & honors programs make such a significant difference for those attending large public universities.

@Publisher, sure, but I doubt those social/psychological factors have a monetary impact.

Not sure that I understand your point.

The article focused on whether earning an undergraduate degree from a prestigious school is worth the extra cost. The conclusion was that any extra earnings boost was not significant, but that earning a degree within 6 years was more likely at the most selective schools.

Obviously, the most selective schools are filled with the most academically accomplished students just like public honors colleges & honors programs.

Both honors colleges/programs and the most selective schools tend to award the best financial aid and merit money so the best students tend to have the least financial worries while studying in the best academic environment.


@Publisher: My point is that college graduation rate for an academically strong kid who doesn’t have to worry about fin aid is irrelevant from a monetary payoff perspective.

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Then on that point we have some degree of disagreement.

Graduates of less selective schools simply do not have the same access to the best jobs as do graduates from the most selective colleges & universities (and I include well established honors colleges & honors programs among the category of most selective schools).

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In my opinion you need to look at other aspects of the college experience not just just career earnings and graduation rates and focus on the quality of the education one actually gets over 4 years. These are the most important aspects of an “elite” education that will stay with the student for the rest of their lives.

It’s like taking the top athlete and putting him on a team of average or above average players and coaches versus immersing him/her on a team of other exceptional athletes and coaches. Which environment will challenge this athlete (student) the most to reach their full potential?

Another example is the differences between “elite” private high schools and your average public high school. Near me is Harvard Westlake college prep high school. One of the “best” in the nation. They offer a curriculum that has greater depth and breadth than the typical public high school just can’t offer. Sure you can take some limited AP classes at the public high school, maybe even take some Dual Enrollment classes at the local community college but if that same student had attended HW they would have taken a myriad of classes that are not offered elsewhere, they would be collaborating with other exceptional students, and the faculty’s knowledge and most importantly expectations of its students will be greater.

At each high school, the student will get a high school diploma, but the big question is which high school will maximize their full potential and get the best education out of this student? I think you know the answer…

In my mind, attending a top college has less to do with “prestige” than it does about achieving the very best education you can get over a 4 year period.


Very true. That’s why many of us here keep saying that it just isn’t worth going into debt to attend very selective colleges.

One thing the article might be missing is that the reason median earnings are rising from less selective schools at a faster rate is because the top well prepared students who excel are choosing these colleges over more selective schools. They realize that being in debt is not worth the extra $5,000/year in higher earnings, and taking the better financial deal pays off in the long run. If you receive $5K/year more, the break even point for a school that costs $100,000 more to attend is 20 years! (this is purely hypothetical and life doesn’t really work completely like this; people switch jobs more these days, and salary data gets conflated)

It used to be the top students chose an Ivy League or a very selective public or private university, perhaps out of state. Now, many are staying in state or going to honors colleges; they may have saving $$$ for graduate school in mind, or just don’t want the extra debt.


@socaldad2002 Hits on some great points. There are a variety of factors, the most visible being the entry-level salary upon graduation. (Even a few thousand more in year 1, can be compounded heavily over the course of a career).

Another factor is the mean. if your kid attends a great private school/college, they will likely come out better off even if they graduate in the middle of the class than had they gone to a lesser school and graduated closer to the top. Education is the baseline in many fields.
While there are many on CC who will talk about specific folks who have done awfully well and went to public U, a quick look at CEO’s and those in the top-earning brackets will show they are disproportionately represented by the same colleges and Universities. (Same thing goes for Supreme Court justices who mainly attend the same top schools).

People who are wise enough to work their college network will have ready access to others who will help them in their careers. In some cases, this can be profound. Better school = better network. Again, borne out by the number of investments made in companies ( venture/angel capital) and the colleges of the CEO or top people. These usually read like a roster of the same places.
Perhaps, these factors are changing but things will have to change a lot before the “prestige” factor has been eliminated.

That’s actually a decent comparison, and we know that NFL players go there from schools that are far from the top college football programs all the time. Top NFL players.

Look up where Hall of Famers Jerry Rice, Randy Moss, and Brett Favre went to school.

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The marketplace has spoken. Either tens of thousands of families are under a mass delusion that prestigious degrees offer a massive leg up in the world, and are willing to pay exorbitant amounts of money as a result of that belief . . . or, just maybe, they are right.


Poor analysis.

We know that that the inputs to the top schools are better, so if you don’t normalize for that, simply looking at outputs is somewhat meaningless.

Also, there’s a ROI aspect as well. IMO, an M7 MBA is still justifiable. But no undergraduate student body matches HBS or Stanford GSB (while costing a lot more if you’re full-pay).

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Sure, Big Consulting and Wall Street recruit from the highly selective colleges almost exclusively.

But to be fair, the average graduate from a highly selective college doesn’t have access to the ‘best jobs’ either. Big Consulting and Wall Street hire only the cream de la cream (absent a hook). And those jobs are few.

That being said, the article is just wrong.

No, Varsity Blues had nothing to do with setting up a kid for future life success. (Jade already was running a million dollar business.) Varsity Blues was almost all about Parental bragging rights. Period.

(And the 'rents were stupid. A $500k legit donation to USC woulda gotten their kid in thru the front door!)

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Much of this is a selection effect – those *who can get admitted to more selective colleges/i are more likely to graduate college, even if they attend a less selective college.

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My point is not the outliers (any college in the nation will have a few exceptional students), I’m talking about the collective group, maximizing their potential because they are immersed with other exceptional athletes; I’m really not concerned if they ever make it to the pros or not.

The journey is the prize. ALL of the players on that top team will be improved because their peers have the athletic acumen, dedication, discipline, teamwork and desire in their given pursuit.

Re: “prestige” colleges. I have a close friend whose kid attends Harvard. She is extremely bright and gifted intellectual, everything comes easy to her. But now in college she is challenged by her fellow students (she isn’t #1 in her class anymore like she was in high school); the curriculum is hard; and the faculty are some of the best in the world with the expectations high.

When she does group projects, she is collaborating with students who are just as bright as she is and push her. She is a government/political science major and has been given the opportunity to meet one on one with U.S. senator Elizabeth Warren and has had impromptu lunches with congressional aides. What a wonderful environment for a government major to thrive in.

Had she taken the cheapest route to get a college education, e.g. attending Cal State Northridge for less than 100K, her parents would have saved a ton of money, but would she have received the best possible undergraduate education and experience that she could have? An education that will stay with her the rest of her life?


There are many easier ways to make more money than the “average” Harvard grad then by going to Harvard. Degrees over school, after all. A random chemical engineer from Alabama U. will make more than most Harvard grads for sure.

But I suspect that for many really elite positions the story changes.

Anyone from any school can get into medical school and become a cardiologist. But investment banking might require a more specific path.

That subtlety is lost when we discuss “averages.”

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This seems rather confused. The “collective group” at a lower ranking college is not the same as the “collective group” at Harvard. An average student at Harvard is likely to be one of the “few exceptional students” at a lower ranking college.

And why compare Harvard to Cal State Northridge? Compare it to UCLA or Berkeley. Many students there would absolutely say that they have received the best possible undergraduate education and experience that they could have (and had the chance to meet/take class with plenty of politicians, then get prestigious internships, jobs and grad school admissions).

Some students thrive as an average student in a group with exceptional talent, others thrive as a star in a group with lesser talent. But many will thrive in either setting.

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