Do Students Really Need a Degree from an Elite Institution?

Early in their educational lives, students are told that a truly bright economic future depends on a degree from an elite college or university. Is that really true? Not according to Dr. Alan Krueger, Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at a most elite institution, Princeton University. Dr. Krueger was interviewed for the June, 2011 issue of Money magazine, where he stated:

My colleague Stacy Dale and I tracked more than 26,000 students who were freshmen at a group of about two dozen colleges, which included schools such as Penn State and Yale. Over the course of their careers, the students who chose not to attend the most selective school to which they were admitted earned about as much as those with similar grades and test scores who went to the highest-ranked college they got into.

This research demonstrates that the quality of student and program outranks the elite status of the institution in determining earning power. This reminds one of research published by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers. It was a list of where the last 25 Americans to win the Nobel Prize in Medicine prior to 2008 got their undergraduate degrees. As expected, the list included institutions like:

• Harvard University 
• Columbia University
• Yale University
• Brown University
• Amherst College

But Nobel laureates in Medicine were just as likely to have gotten their bachelor’s at:

• Antioch College
• Holy Cross
• Hunter College
• DePauw University
• University of Minnesota
• Union College, Kentucky

Clearly, the quality of pre-med programs at these institutions was sufficient to put high achieving students on a path to greatness. As Dr. Krueger put it: 

There is far too much pressure on high school students to go to the most elite schools…My advice is if you have a child applying to college, ignore the various rankings.  No one school is automatically better for all kinds of students.

Admissions officers and marketers at all but the 24 most elite institutions will undoubtedly find this message one they will want to get out to students and parents. But even with a great story, it’s not easy to wrestle with giants like the elite schools studied by Professor Krueger.  

How can good colleges consistently succeed in the shadow of great universities? One way is to consider how other organizations in similar circumstances have found ways to thrive.  With one such organization the unique nature of its integrated marketing communications program is key. We will examine this in “Keeping Admissions Marketing on Target,” It will be the next post in this blog on The Allied Group website.

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