“As you can see, our students come from all over the United States and all over the world to attend graduate school here.” The speaker put up a map of the world with dots representing each new admit to UNC’s Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program. The map was littered with dots all up and down the east and west coasts of the United States, dots so clustered you couldn’t pick out individuals. And then there was one dot smack-dab in the middle of the country, at least an entire state away from the next-nearest dot on all sides. That dot was me.

Now, I tell this story of my first day at UNC as a funny anecdote of how the lone girl from a small town in Oklahoma found her way to this prestigious institution. But on that day, it confirmed one of my biggest fears about coming here.

Asking my classmates where they went for their undergraduate studies, I hear names people fawn over: “MIT, Dartmouth, UCLA, Northeastern, a spattering of exclusive liberal arts colleges, etc.”. For most of them, the trajectory to graduate school seemed predetermined—a natural progression. They navigated the application process with confidence, knowing exactly where to apply and what criteria to consider. I went to the University of Oklahoma (OU) because it was free, and from the moment I started considering applying to graduate school, one thought was always on the forefront of my mind: “This is a long shot, no, an impossibility. An education from OU is not good enough for graduate school – I’ll never get in.”

I did get in, but the prestige I’d found myself in was overwhelming – a source of the notorious imposter syndrome. As I’ve gotten further into my PhD, that feeling has slowly faded as I’ve realized that I am progressing alongside my peers, regardless of our undergraduate institutions. I realize now, that I had fallen prey to a common misconception held by students across the United States: that I couldn’t be successful without the name of a prestigious university on my diploma. 

A cartoon depiction of the concept of academic success. A blue university building with big steps and pillars surrounding a red door is the center of the image. Beneath the university building is an open textbook with a graduate's cap in the middle. Surrounding these two icons are a multitude of other items associated with academic success, most tinted blue with some red for highlights. The icons include gears, lightbulbs, laptops, monitors, pencils, students at their desks, etc..
The Influence of Examinations on Academic Success” by Easy-Peasy.AI – AI Image Generator is licensed under CC BY-ND 4.0 DEED.

So let’s dig into that – does where you attend school matter? Does it meaningfully impact success or income?

Graduates from highly-ranked schools indeed earn more on average than graduates from lower-ranked schools. According to Payscale.com, in the 20 years following degree completion, Harvard graduates earn $760,000 more than the average bachelor’s degree earner. But why do these graduates earn more? As it turns out, the increase in earning potential associated with graduation from a big-name institution has little to do with the institution and training received. Rather, it has to do with which students these schools accept in the first place.

Economists Dale & Krueger performed two studies analyzing the relationship between university-attended and self-reported income over cohorts between 1983 and 2007. They specifically focused on students who were admitted to big-name schools but instead chose to attend culturally similar but less selective institutions. Comparing these students to those who graduated from big-name schools shows no difference in earning potential after graduation. This trend held true, except in the case of low-income and black and Latino students. Evidence indicates this is largely attributable to access to career networks. One thing big-name schools offer that less selective institutions may not is access to the 1%.

1 in 6 students attending an Ivy League school has parents in the top 1%. These students have higher standardized test scores on average due to factors like access to private tutoring, standardized test practice, and a reduced need to work to support their families. But even when controlling for SAT and ACT scores, children from families in the top 1% were 34% more likely to be admitted to an Ivy League institution, and students from the top 0.1% were more than twice as likely to be admitted.

These students already have access to wealth, power, and connections – all things that are vitally important in securing a top-earning job, especially in more socially focused fields like business, economics, or social science, where we see the largest correlation between university prestige and future earnings, compared to fields like engineering and science. When low-income students attend a prestigious, big-name institution, they too gain access (to a lesser extent) to the networking potential their peers have had all along.

So yes, it seems that for black, brown, and low-income students, attending a prestigious university could increase their earning potential after degree completion. But the evidence also suggests that this has little to do with the quality of the education available – the increase in earning potential seems to arise from the prestige itself.

I would be remiss to not caveat that although access to the social networks available at these institutions may increase earning potential for minority students, they still face significant systematic barriers impacting access to opportunities, even with a prestigious education on their resume. A study documenting 12 elite U.S. colleges revealed that only a very small portion (1%) of all college graduates in the U.S. attend one of these colleges. However, as of 2023, these colleges’ graduates represent a significant percentage of Fortune 500 CEOs (12%) as well as the country’s top 0.1% of earners (13%). In the same year, whites make up 88% of the top 1% and 86% of Fortune 500 chief executives. Clearly, whites and graduates of these elite colleges comprise an unequal portion of elite societal positions in the U.S. So, while access to elite institutions can boost earning potential for minority students, systemic barriers persist, perpetuating disparities in access to opportunities even among those with prestigious educations.

So, does where you attend school matter? It seems the answer is…. kind of. For most, attendance at a prestigious university does not significantly impact success or earning potential, especially in STEM fields. For low-income or minority students, particularly those pursuing fields like business or economics, it can increase your earning potential, but this appears to be a result of the networking opportunities and prestige available at these universities in the first place. And these same students will inevitably also face increased systemic barriers in comparison to their peers at the same prestigious institutions. Ultimately, it’s important to remember that success is not solely, or even mostly, dependent on the institution you choose to attend. There is a much stronger correlation between degree of happiness while in college and academic success. So, while attending a prestigious university may offer advantages, particularly for certain demographics and fields, success ultimately hinges more on personal fulfillment and academic achievement than the institution itself.


Peer Editor: Maria X. Cardenas-Alvarez

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