Attending Elite Private Schools vs. Public Universities


Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

An American Express/Harrison survey of millionaires reported that half ran their own business, with 1/3 having a professional practice or experience working in the corporate field. “The Millionaire Mind” states that the median college GPA for millionaires is 2.9, the average SAT score 1190, and 59% of millionaires attended a state college or university according to AmEx/Harrison. Just under half of all millionaires surveyed held an advanced degree. Getting to the front of the pack with pay can take a combination of school, innovation, who you know and how hard you work.

How Important is it to Attend an Elite School?

College costs are rising at a scary rate, and students have an average of $21,500 in college student loans. Meanwhile, salaries for B.A.s are falling. New data and studies suggest that attending a good program at a less elite school and continuing with a higher degree may be a better investment than putting all your funds toward an elite undergraduate.

The college ranking system by U.S. News and World Report, although the most widely referenced and respected, is also the target of criticism from some independent groups and individuals. “The rankings are a measure of wealth, exclusivity and fame, not quality,” says Kevin Carey, research manager at the nonprofit Education Sector. Carey claims that the rankings inflate the draw of some schools, which brings more applicants, which in turn brings more rejections and the ability to class a school as superior.

Forbes counters the sacred U.S. News rankings with their own list, based on the quality of undergraduate experience and the quality of professors, with no involvement from the colleges in the rankings.

The list, in order:

  • Princeton University
  • California Institute of Technology
  • Harvard University
  • Swarthmore College
  • Williams College
  • U.S. Military Academy
  • Amherst College
  • Wellesley College
  • Yale University, and
  • Columbia University.

Less than 1% of students attend Ivy League schools, and “middle class families [are at a] disadvantage in the system” when it comes to aid and financial access. 80% of undergrads in the U.S. attend public colleges, which are also raising tuition rates – college costs have seen a 439% rise since 1982. The debate over whether an elite college is worth it is raging, and Ohio University economics professor Richard Vedder claims in his “Going Broke for Degree” that there is “virtually no date that allows families to evaluate the quality of [an elite college’s] educational offerings or the outcome of its graduates.”

A study by the Brookings institution showed that having a B.A. increased the chances of entering the top-income earning bracket, regardless of whether or not it was from an Ivy League school. Does a top education result in better outcome for life?

Different studies have disputed the myth that elite schools automatically mean better salaries. A well-known paper by Princeton economist Alan Krueger and researcher Stacy Berg Dale at the Andrew W. Mellon foundation compared the salaries of graduates who earned degrees from top tier colleges with those of graduates who were accepted to the same schools, but chose to attend less selective schools. Both groups of graduates ended up with similar income, drawing the conclusion that strong students will excel no matter where they get their degree. The one exception pointed to low-income students who benefited from the social networking they experienced at the most selective colleges.

Another study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania claimed that degrees from elite schools are not as valuable at major corporations as they were twenty-five years ago. The percentage of top executives at Fortune 100 companies with undergraduate degrees from Ivy League schools fell by nearly one-third, from 14% to 10%. The percentage that attended other highly ranked schools (Notre Dame, etc.) fell from 54% to 42%, while public university graduates rose from 32% to 50%.

Vedder claims that when comparing the best private and public undergraduate programs, private schools do not often offer an “unbeatable advantage.” Cooper Union, a free tuition school, has a highly ranked engineering program, which again begs the question of whether it’s worth it to shell out for a big name. Financial advisers recommend that student loan payments not exceed 10% of starting salaries, requiring some decision-making regarding the cost of school and expected starting pay.


Learn More: Significance of MBA, EMBA, Ph.D. Degrees