Elite colleges: worth it for some students, not others?

Lily Jones, head editor-in-chief

Under “Operation Varsity Blues,” the FBI uncovered a scheme in which wealthy parents paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to get their children into elite colleges, in some cases by pretending to be recruited athletes. The scandal has undermined the prestige of these institutions and raised the question: do “elite colleges” deserve their reputations?

The answer is not simple. It depends on who the student is and what they look for in a college. For those that go to college seeking social mobility and job opportunities, elite colleges may not be the most advantageous choice.

Reputable research from the Equality of Opportunity project found, by surveying 10.8 million people born between 1980 and 1982, that low and mid-range colleges, rather than elite institutions, were the best at providing upward mobility for students. This is because less selective schools accept a larger number of students from low-income backgrounds and help them climb the income scale. They include schools like the City College of New York, Cal State Los Angeles, Pace University and Glendale Community College. These schools take more than a fifth of their students from the bottom fifth of the income scale, and all three are in the top 10 schools ranked by the share of students who move up two or more income quintiles.

Additionally, it’s important to note that elite institutions are typically significantly more expensive than state or community colleges. While a wealthy student might not find the weight of tuition burdensome, others leave elite colleges with debilitating levels of student debt.

The value of a prestigious education also depends on the field the student wants to enter. In 2016, Brigham Young University released a study that found business and liberal-arts majors often need the prestige of an elite college under their belt to realize their future earnings expectations, whereas for fields like engineering and medicine it is less important. Interestingly, Princeton University researcher Alan Krueger found that where you went to college was less important than which colleges you simply applied to, in deciding what income bracket graduates ended up in. This reinforces the idea that relative aptitude and aspirations are more important than what institutions are eventually selected by the student.

However, it’s important to note that elite colleges routinely produce the most top graduate school admits and scholarship winners. Education experts disagree as to whether this is simply because elite colleges attract the most adept and motivated students or because these institutions have the best teaching and resources to prepare students.

The recent admissions scandal has raised more questions about the wealth of elite colleges, some that have endowments in the billions of dollars, and still heavily favor legacy admissions. These factors have started to erode the moral credibility of these colleges. While these schools have aimed to increase diversity in recent years, most maintain a majority of white and wealthy students. To that point, the same study published by The Equality of Opportunity Project showed that 38 of the top-ranked colleges in the U.S. enrolled significantly more students coming from the top 1 percent of the income scale than from the entire lower 60 percent of the scale.

In a highly-ranked, competitive public school like Edina, it is not uncommon to hear upperclassmen obsess over “Ivy-Leagues” or other top universities. But, it may be increasingly true that these schools fall short for some students. If students, whether they go to M.I.T. or their local community college, have the same intellect and ambition, they can be making the same amount of money years later. However, the ample alumnae connections, pioneering professors, and high-tech facilities make a strong case for why these schools stay at the top of university rankings. The reality seems to be that if you are a wealthy student from Edina, you may want to seek out the most intellectually stimulating, prestigious school despite the price tag. But if you are a low-income student striving to make a livable income right away, your local community college may be better suited for your goals.