Rejection is harsh, and elite universities, unfeeling bureaucracies that they are, just love to dole it out. This year, Harvard University admitted only 5.3 percent of its 37,307 applicants, an all-time low. The other Ivies took in anywhere from 6.1 percent of hopefuls (Columbia University) to 14.9 percent (Cornell University). Silicon Valley’s favorite finishing school, Stanford University, had a rock-bottom acceptance rate of 5 percent.
Somewhere, the student body president of an affluent suburban high school is weeping into her prematurely purchased crimson sweatshirt.
But she can take heart. Even if prestigious colleges are saying thanks but no thanks to more kids than ever, the majority of top students still have great odds of getting into at least one very competitive school. Moreover, the evidence suggests that for the typical kid with dreams of spending her undergrad years in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it doesn’t really matter whether she attends the most exclusive university possible, at least when it comes to her future earnings potential.
The classic academic work on this subject comes to us from economists Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger, who studied 1976 and 1989 freshmen from 27 different selective schools, ranging from state flagships like Penn State up to Ivies like Yale and Columbia.* On the whole, the pair found that once you took into account where students applied to college, actually attending a more selective institution, measured by factors like their average SAT scores and guidebook rankings, didn’t increase their earnings after graduation. In other words, if a young woman was smart, hard-working, or plain-old ambitious enough to take a shot at Princeton, but ended up going to Wesleyan or Georgetown or Northwestern or Xavier instead, her income didn’t suffer. Going to a fancy school was just as good as going to an exceptionally fancy school.1
There were two big exceptions to that finding, however. Minorities and undergrads whose parents never went to college did seem to benefit from attending increasingly competitive schools. How come? The authors hypothesized that networking might be the answer. While affluent white kids could rely on their families and friends for help in the job hunt, black, Hispanic, and lower-income alums may have needed the connections provided on the most elite of elite campuses.
Of course, these results are based on students who started college more than a quarter century ago. My hunch is that, as the Common Application has allowed ever-larger numbers of loosely qualified 18-year-olds to apply to schools like Harvard, the act of merely submitting your name for consideration may not be quite as good an indicator of your future career prospects as in the past. But if you’re one the many, many perfectly adequate white, upper-middle-class students rejected by the Ivy of your fantasies (and maybe even all of the Ivies) thanks solely to the caprice of the admissions gods, well, don’t sweat it.
Meanwhile, maybe the country’s most exclusive colleges could strive the tiniest bit harder for some racial and economic diversity. After all, those minority and first-generation college student could actually use their help.
1 Sadly, Harvard itself was not included in the sample of schools. But I think Yale and Princeton serve as good enough proxies here to justify my headline. Any who disagree are encouraged to express themselves in the comments section. And, for your curiosity, here’s the full list of colleges covered in the study: Bryn Mawr College, Duke University, Georgetown University, Miami University of Ohio, Morehouse College, Oberlin College, Penn State University, Princeton University, Stanford University, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, Vanderbilt University, Washington University, Wellesley College, Wesleyan University, Williams College, Xavier University, and Yale University.
*Correction, April 1, 2015: This article originally misstated that the study’s subjects graduated college in 1976 and 1989. They began college in those years.