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Reasons to Consider a Less Selective, Less Expensive College

Why Fitchburg State may be better than Harvard.

When my wife was finishing high school, some years ago, she had an academic record that could have gotten her into most highly selective colleges. She chose, instead, Fitchburg State, a school you will never see in Newsweek's rankings of top colleges or in anybody's guide to the most selective schools in America. She looked carefully, and she concluded that, for what she wanted to study, Fitchburg's program was as good as any; and she especially liked the fact that neither she nor her parents would have to go into debt for her to go there. She was also pleased that her fellow students would come from a diverse set of backgrounds. She--who is now a highly respected physician, at the top of her field--has never regretted that decision. There is no indication that her Fitchburg diploma, which she proudly displays, has served her any less well than a diploma from Harvard would have. I personally envy the reverse snobbery that she is able (subtly) to display among her colleagues who have degrees from fancy schools.

For decades, our nation's educational establishment has been promoting a simplistic, wrong-headed view about college selection. That view is: Apply to the most selective schools that you have a chance of getting into, and then go to the most selective school that accepts you. The notion out there is that you are "selling yourself short," "not being all you can be," if you don't go to the most selective and expensive college that is willing to take you. Because that notion has gotten so firmly into people's heads, private colleges have for many years been able to get away with increases in tuitions and other fees that have vastly outstripped inflation and are nothing short of outrageous. Here I will present a case for thinking carefully and not falling into the trap that has captured so many.

For equally able students, education at a highly selective college does not lead to a better job or higher income than does education at a less selective college.

Some people are fooled by a misleading statistic. Yes, it is true that graduates from Harvard (and its ilk) do, on average, make more money than graduates from Fitchburg State (and its ilk). But, remember, those who go to Harvard are, on average, quite different to begin with from those who go to Fitchburg. Because most people have the mindset that they should attend the most selective school they can get into, Harvard and others like it are able to select the cream of the crop (by the usual definition of cream). These are people who are destined to do well, career wise, no matter where they go to school. Most of them are extraordinarily bright and motivated (and the rest have very rich or famous parents).

The fact that the average graduate of an elite college makes more money in adult life than does the average graduate of a less elite college has no bearing at all on the question of whether or not you (or your son or daughter) will make more money by going to an elite college. The only kind of research study that would help at all to answer that question is one that compares students who had equal initial academic ability and income-earning potential but chose to go to colleges differing in prestige level. Fortunately, such a study has been done; but not many people know about it.

In 2002, Stacy Berg Dale and Alan Krueger published the results of an extensive study of the relationship between college attended and subsequent income for students who, on other measures, had comparable potential.[1] They used data from the National Longitudinal Survey of the High School Class of 1972. As one part of their study, they focused exclusively on those students who had applied to and been accepted by at least one highly elite college and at least one less elite college. Then, from this pool, they compared the adult incomes of those who had chosen the elite school to the adult incomes for those who had chosen the less elite school, and they found no significant difference. In another part of the study, they used statistical means to equate students for income potential, based on information about them when they were in high school (such as their SAT scores), and, again, found that students with equal initial potential did essentially equally well, income wise, regardless of the prestige level of the college they attended.

There was, I should note, one interesting exception to the general conclusion that prestige of college attended did not affect adult income. That exception was for students coming from very low-income families. For that group, and only that group, attending an elite college did significantly boost average income. Perhaps, for that group, attending an elite school helped in various ways to elevate them into a higher social class, which helped them get better jobs and make more money as adults than they would have otherwise. For the typical middle-class college student, however, there was no such effect. So, if you happen to come from a low-income family and have great high-school grades and SAT scores, then, depending on a lot of other conditions, you might want to listen to the standard advice and go to the most prestigious school you can get into. It is also the case that the most prestigious colleges have the best financial aid packages for those who come from low-income families. If you can get into Harvard and your family has no money to pay for it, Harvard will pay all of your expenses. For you, Harvard might not only provide a bigger boost up than Fitchburg State, but it might be cheaper as well.

There is no evidence that the quality of a college education correlates with its cost.

Quality of college education is very difficult if not impossible to assess in any general way. What works great for one person may be terrible for another. Moreover, consistent with the theme of most of these blog posts, the education that you get in college, regardless of what college you attend, will depend on what you put into it. Real education is not done to you; it is done by you. Therefore, it is important for you to assess schools based on what you can do there.

It is also the case that, at many elite schools, the most famous professors (the ones drawing the highest salaries) will generally be least available to you as an undergraduate student. They will be busy with their research and graduate students. It is standard practice now that professors who get big research grants use part of that money to "buy out" some or all of their courses. The result is that the university hires, for paltry amounts, graduate students and outside part-timers to teach those courses.

If you go to a less elite college, especially if it one without a graduate program, the professors may not be famous, but they may well be better scholars than the graduate students and part-timers who are teaching the famous professors' courses elsewhere. They are also likely to be more dedicated to teaching and to have more time and motivation to get to know you as a person. They may welcome you to participate in their research or other scholarly or community work, as a junior colleague, which could give you invaluable experience not available in the classroom.

I myself went to an Ivy League college, many years ago, partly because of the fame of the members of its physics department. I was, at the time, planning to major in physics. I took my first physics course from the most famous of all of those professors, and it was the worst course I ever took in my life. He often appeared late for lectures, and when he did appear he would talk incoherently; he seemed to be making his lecture up on the spot, while his mind was somewhere else. None of us could understand him, and most of us just stopped attending class. That experience led me to change my focus of study to biology and psychology--which may or may not have been a good thing.

Of course, there are many wonderful professors in prestigious schools who do take their teaching seriously. I know personally quite a few of them. I'm just saying that you can't assume that the famous professors at any given prestigious school are good teachers, or are teaching at all. Wherever you apply, you should find out who actually teaches the courses you are likely to take, and you should find out what you can about students' evaluations of those teachers. If possible, visit their classes.

It is often better to be a "big fish in a little pond" than the reverse.

A well-documented psychological phenomenon, relevant to your college choice, is what social psychologists call the "big-fish-little-pond effect."[2] The phenomenon has to do with self-esteem. Many research studies have shown that, given equal academic abilities, students in a non-selective academic setting feel better about their academic abilities than do students in a highly selective setting. Stated differently, a student of moderate ability might feel incompetent, even depressed, in an environment of super achievers. Conversely, that same student might feel like a super achiever himself or herself--and might even start performing like one--in an environment in which his or her performance stands out as one of the best. Unfortunately, our educational world is constructed so as to promote a competitive attitude, so such comparisons and their effects on self-esteem are inevitable. Getting accepted at that Ivy League college might give you an immediate burst of high self-esteem, as your classmates look at you with envy and your grandparents gloat; but actually going to that college could lead to a very long bout of depression, if it turns out to be more than you bargained for.

Separate from self-esteem, there is another advantage of being a big fish in a little pond. A good student at a less prestigious school generally has a much better chance of being noticed by the professors and, therefore, of receiving extra educational opportunities and wonderful recommendations for future careers or studies, than does a student of equal ability at a highly prestigious school. Those extra opportunities and glowing letters may, in many cases, more than compensate for any loss in prestige value that comes from not having gone to Harvard. Moreover, if the classes are easier at the less-prestigious school, that could be a good thing, not just for your self-esteem but also for your education. It would leave you more time to go beyond the assigned coursework, to take charge of your own education, in ways that in the long run will lead to more real learning than the assignments and tests given in class.

I'm not saying it is always a mistake to go to the most prestigious college you can get into. I'm just saying that there are many good reasons to consider seriously the alternative. Another thing to consider is this: For you, given what you really want to do in life, is a four-year college advantageous at all? Many young people today--including many who could easily get into the most prestigious colleges in the country--are carving out great lives for themselves, happy at their work, making good livings, without going to college at all. "A mind is a terrible thing to waste, at college, if you've got better things to do." But that's another essay.


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1. S. B. Dale & A. B. Krueger, "Estimating the payoff of attending a more selective college," Quarterly Journal of Economics, 117 (2002), 1491-1527.
2. H. W. Marsh & K-T. Hau, "The big-fish-little-pond effect on academic self-concept," American Psychologist, 58 (2003), 364-376.