Apr 162012

For those who strive to achieve academic excellence, many feel bound by an unspoken law that suggests success will come only to those who attend renowned schools. In fact, this belief has become so prevalent that few have bothered to question the validity of this assumption. The reality, however, is that long-term happiness, potential employment opportunities, and financial success are not determined by school choice but are instead reflections of students’ individual attributes. In some instances, enrolling into rigorous institutions may actually demoralize students and discourage them from completing their preferred majors.


Happiness and Employment Opportunities

Many students have committed themselves to the idea that by gaining admittance into an elite college, happiness will inevitably follow. Contrary to what these individuals have been led to believe, however, surveys have failed to find any correlation between college prestige and long-term happiness (Ray, & Kafka, 2014; National Survey of Student Engagement, 2008). Rather than school status, the factors that most profoundly influenced students’ overall life satisfaction were related to the levels of relationships that were developed with professors. Meaningful connections were equally likely to flourish at schools of all levels of status. In addition to failing to increase long-term happiness, employment opportunities were not offered more frequently to those who attended elite universities. In fact, one survey found that although some companies perceived graduates from elite institutions to possess superior critical thinking and communication skills, the majority of their workforce relied on practical skills that were more effectively developed through state schools (Merritt, 2014). Overall, the preponderance of evidence suggests that for students who wish to maximize lifelong happiness and employment opportunities, school choice should be influenced by factors other than prestige.



While it is clear that school choice has little effect on intangible outcomes, such as happiness, those who are primarily focused on monetary gain may still feel justified in their endeavour to enroll in a renowned university. This belief is understandable when considering the fact that those who have attended more prestigious schools do tend to obtain higher earnings (Brewer, Ehrenberg, & Eric, 1999). The reality, however, is that these higher earnings are primarily a result of the calibre of students that are accepted into these institutions. In fact, multiple studies have found that students who were admitted into elite universities but chose to attend less prestigious alternatives enjoyed equally high earnings (Dale & Krueg, 2002, 2011). Furthermore, in controlled trials where students were randomly assigned to high schools of varying status, school quality failed to provide any measurable advantage towards academic success (Cullen, Jacob, & Levitt, 2003, 2005). Based on these findings, there is little doubt that monetary gain and academic success are the result of an individual’s skills rather than the institution attended.



Additionally, not only does attending an elite university fail to confer any discernible advantages, in some circumstances, school prestige may even be disadvantageous. A vast array of studies indicate that students who attended highly competitive schools were less likely to complete their initially chosen major and were more likely to drop out or switch to easier, potentially less lucrative majors (Chang et al, 2008; Davis et al, 1966; Elliot et al, 1996; & Marsh et al, 2008). This phenomenon is attributed to the dramatic decline in self-efficacy that inevitably results when students are immersed in a greater magnitude of competition to which they are not accustomed. According to esteemed author Malcolm Gladwell (2013), “the more elite an educational institution is, the worse students feel about their own academic abilities… And that feeling – as subjective and ridiculous and irrational as it may be – matters… It’s a crucial element in your motivation and confidence”. Not only are matters related to a student’s choice of major affected, but the brightest students from mediocre schools are also more successful at having their research published than average students from elite schools (Conley & Onder, 2013). Considering the fact that only a small fraction of students can possibly be at the top of the class, the data overwhelmingly suggests that the vast majority of individuals can maximize their likelihood of success by attending less prestigious universities.



Ultimately, for those who aspire to achieve long-term happiness, employment opportunities, and financial success, an all-encompassing body of research has demonstrated that attending a renowned university fails to provide students with the rewards that are frequently expected to follow. The perceived value of school prestige may appear plausible in theory, but evidence has convincingly refuted the validity of this widespread belief. For the countless numbers of students who have endured endless struggles and hardships in hopes of gaining admittance into their favoured university, these efforts would be more wisely invested towards a more tenable approach. In the end, individual attributes will always supersede school status in determining desired life outcomes.




Brewer, D. J., Eric, R., & Ehrenberg R. G. (1999). Does it pay to attend an elite private college?

cross-cohort evidence on the effects of college type on earnings.  Journal of Human

Resources, 34(1), 104-123.


Chang, 7M. J., et al. (2008). The contradictory roles of institutional status in retaining

underrepresented minorities in biomedical and behavioural science majors.  Review of

Higher Education, 31(4), 433-464.


Conley, J.P., & Onder, A. S. (2013). An empirical guide to hiring assistant professors in

economics. Vanderbilt University Department of Economics Working Papers 13-00009.


Cullen, J. B., Jacob, B. A., & Levitt, S. D. (2003). The effect of school choice on student

outcomes: evidence from randomized lotteries.  NBER Working Paper No. 10113, 74(5),



Cullen, J.B., Jacob, B. A., & Levitt, S. D. (2005).  The impact of school choice on student

outcomes: an analysis of the chicago public schools.  Journal of Public Economics, 89(5-

6), 729-760.


Dale, S. B., & Krueger, A. B. (2002).  Estimating the payoff to attending a more selective

college: an application of selection on observables and unobservables.  Quarterly Journal

of Economics, 117(4), 1491-1527.


Dale, S. B., & Krueger, A. B. (2011). Estimating the return to college selectivity over the career

using administrative earnings data.  NBER Working Paper No. 17159.


Davis, J. A. (1966).  The campus as frog pond:  an application of the theory of relative

deprivation to career decisions of college men.  American Journal of Sociology, 72(1),



Elliott, R., et al. (1996). The role of ethnicity in choosing and leaving science in highly selective

institutions. Research in Higher Education, 37(6), 681-709.


Gladwell, M. (2013). David and goliath: underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants. New

York: Little Brown and Company.


Marsh, H. W., et al. (2008). The big fish-little pond effect stands up to critical scrutiny:

implications for theory, methodology, and future research.  Educational Psychology

Review, 20(3), 319-350.


Merritt, J. (2010). Employers favor state schools for hires. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved

from online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052748703597204575483730506372718


National Survey of Student Engagement. (2008). Promoting engagement for all students:  the

imperative to look within – 2008 results.  NSSE. Retrieved from



Ray, J., & Kafka, S. (2014). Life in college matters for life after college. Gallup-Purdue.

Retrieved from www.gallup.com/poll/168848/life-college-matters-life-college.aspx