Every year, America’s top colleges will field tens of thousands of applicants. Admissions officers at elite schools will pore over the profiles of so many applications that the 4.0 GPAs, perfect SAT scores, and amazing extracurriculars will start blurring together in a jumble of high achievement and even higher ambition. Some students will get into these top colleges. Many will not. Will you be among those who make it? And if you are, is going to an elite college worth it? And even more importantly, is an elite college right for you?
Well, that all depends. What an annoying answer, right? But it’s true. Elite colleges can help secure amazing opportunities including access to awesome professors, inspiring classmates, top-notch facilities, and highly respected degrees. But elite colleges are also typically very selective, extremely rigorous, and quite expensive. So whether or not you should attend an elite college depends on many factors including your academic performance, your financial outlook, and to an extent that should not be overlooked, your personality. Are you a good fit for this type of environment? And does an elite college help to further your educational, personal and professional goals?
Simply stated, whether you should or shouldn’t attend an elite college will depend entirely upon what you want and need out of the college experience. So before you can answer the key question above—should I go to an elite college?—there are a few other questions you’ll need to address first.
Elite colleges are usually distinguished by extreme selectivity, hefty financial endowments, and equally hefty tuition rates. Elite schools routinely appear among the top 50 to 100 schools on major college ranking lists, especially those rankings that reward schools for low admission rates, high graduation rates, and top marks on reputation surveys.
Want to take a deeper dive into what makes a great school? We explore graduation rates and reputation surveys to find out why these influential metrics may not be the best indicator of greatness:
Regardless of the metrics used, there are a number of schools that earn elite status by performing with uniform excellence across almost any metric you can conjure up. The usual suspects, like Harvard, Princeton, MIT, and CalTech, will generally appear high up on any list of best colleges. These are schools with influential professors, well-established reputations for excellence, and degrees that open doors.
Of course, with few exceptions, these schools also cost a fortune. Most elite schools offer an array of merit- and need-based aid programs. But the Top 10 colleges on our list start at $50K+ per year. So even if you get a discount on the sticker price, you will almost certainly pay top dollar for this experience.
The features noted above don’t necessarily define “elite colleges.” Indeed, a specific and agreed-upon definition is a bit elusive. But these features—selectivity, high graduation rate, influential professors, large endowments, excellent facilities, and vaunted reputation—characterize most schools that are considered elite.
At Academic Influence, we have our own way of identifying elite colleges, one that relies on the Concentrated InfluenceTM metric, which we believe provides a more accurate, objective and transparent way of ranking top colleges and universities. Learn more about Concentrated Influence and why we think this is a superior ranking metric. Or, jump right into your search for elite colleges with our ranking of The 50 Best Colleges & Universities for 2021.
College admissions consulting expert and founder of Next Level Prep, David H. Nguyen, PhD explains that earning a degree from an elite college can afford the recipient “immense privilege.” Among those privileges, Dr. Nguyen notes that reputation alone confers certain opportunities upon the elite college graduate. A degree from Harvard or MIT allows some basic assumptions about the degree-holder’s talent, intelligence, dedication, and general quality as a human being. Whether these assumptions are true or not, possessing a degree from an elite university gives you the benefit of the doubt with prospective employers.
But there’s more to it than that. Nguyen points out that elite colleges are elite for a few reasons, including the access they provide to highly influential alumni, cutting edge facilities, accomplished professors, inspiring guest speakers, exciting research opportunities, and classmates who, like you, are ambitious, intelligent and talented. The chance to connect with current and future influencers is higher at elite universities.
To learn more about the “immense privilege” noted by Dr. Nguyen, check out his look at Why Getting Into a Top 30 University Matters.
In one sense, it goes without saying that elite schools can create elite opportunities. But the question isn’t whether elite schools are excellent. Generally speaking, we can already assume this. The question is really whether an elite school is right for you.
Is an elite college worth the money and the long odds for admission? And is it worth the extra effort you must expend to stand out in a pond crowded with other gifted fish. Your personal circumstances will play a big part in answering these questions.
We like to think of college admissions as resting on academic credentials, extra-curricular activities, community service, and maybe an awesome college essay. But the landscape here at the top of the higher education mountain range suggests that the most consequential factor is your upbringing. Your family’s educational background, socioeconomic status, and demographic features are the strongest predictors of whether or not you’ll attend an elite school.
Your family's educational background, socioeconomic status, and demographic features are the strongest predictors of whether or not you'll attend an elite school.”
That isn’t great news for a system allegedly driven by merit, nor does it speak well to the racial and economic diversity of America’s top schools. But it does shine a light on the question of whether or not an elite college is worth it. Again, it depends who you are.
An article from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) offers some surprising conclusions. Namely, for the vast majority of students who are even in the running to attend an elite college, it probably won’t make much of a difference where you go. Roughly 50,000 to 100,000 students will send applications to the nation’s top schools each year. At best, 30% of these students will be accepted, while the vast majority will be forced to settle for schools on the next tier. The good news for this majority is that, according to NBER, students with similar SAT scores earned roughly the same professional income in their 30s, 40s, and 50s regardless of whether they were accepted or rejected by an elite college.
This, says an article in The Atlantic, is because most students who are even in contention to attend one of these colleges are already armed with the kinds of advantages that will continue to serve them after graduation—regardless of where they ultimately earn their degree. Students who apply to elite colleges tend, in statistically significant numbers, to come from educated and financially comfortable families with myriad connections to internship and career opportunities. Those opportunities tend to remain open to such students whether they’ve attained their bachelor’s degree at Princeton, Purdue, or Penn State.
By contrast, students from minority populations and less financially secure families have a lot more ground to gain by attending an elite college. According to The Atlantic, “researchers found that the most selective schools really do make an extraordinary difference in life earnings for ‘black and Hispanic students’ and ‘students who had parents with an average of less than 16 years of schooling.’”
Students who apply to elite colleges tend, in statistically significant numbers, to come from educated and financially comfortable families with myriad connections to internship and career opportunities.”
Unfortunately, the numbers also suggest that such opportunities are nowhere near as accessible to these students. According to The Atlantic, “Controlling for test scores and grades, a legacy student is about three-times more likely to be accepted to a highly selective college. Several elite schools, like Washington University in St. Louis and Middlebury, accept more students from the top 1 percent than the bottom 60 percent.”
In other words, the likelihood of attending an elite college from a low-income background is slim, even for high achieving students. And this isn’t simply because students from such backgrounds are being rejected by the top schools. It’s because many of these otherwise capable students aren’t applying in the first place. The Atlantic observes that “Attracting lower-income students often means directly marketing in school districts that haven’t historically sent many teenagers to the Ivy League and its peers. Elite colleges don’t market as heavily in lower-income areas.”
To wit, author and college admissions expert Jeffrey Selingo explains in his newest book—Who Gets In & Why—that “just 18 percent of high schools produced ‘75 percent of applications and 79 percent of admitted students.’” Elite colleges lean heavily on high schools with a reputation for producing elite students. It should perhaps not come as a surprise that these schools are overwhelmingly affluent.
This tells us that elite schools must do a better job of courting students from diverse backgrounds, those who would benefit the most. However, as Selingo notes, this would contradict current trends, which have shown a growth in legacy admissions even as general admission rates shrink. Between 2009 and 2015, for instance, Harvard admitted 34% of legacy applicants versus just 6% of the general population. This suggests that your odds of getting into a top college were nearly six times higher if your parents went to this same school.
If you’re interested in hearing more of author Jeff Selingo’s perspective on college admissions, check out these articles and interviews:
So is it worth going to an elite college? If money is no object, sure. On the other hand, if money is no object, you may actually get a better return on your investment by attending a well-regarded public school. According to Money Crashers, an Ivy League college will cost roughly 198% more than tuition for an in-state public college. While your lifetime earnings will be greater with an Ivy League degree, so too will be your expenses. Money Crashers points out that, “Under a standard 10-year student loan repayment plan, public college graduates are left with approximately $900 more in monthly take-home pay than alumni from Ivy League schools and private colleges.”
On the other hand, if attending an Ivy League school has the potential to catapult you from a low-income circumstance into a world of elite opportunities, it may be worth the investment and the student loan debt you will most certainly accumulate. Just be aware that you will likely be surrounded by students from affluent backgrounds. As long as you believe you can thrive in this environment, a degree from an elite school can open a lot of doors for you.
For students on the bubble—excellent students with imperfect standardized test scores or star athletes with only slightly above average class rank, for instance—this is likely the most important question. Are you better served by aggressively pursuing scarce opportunities at the elite level, or by becoming a standout student at a good school with a higher acceptance rate?
Well, let’s start with this fact:
Access to elite colleges has only grown more competitive in recent years. Selingo notes in his book that “the most selective institutions—representing only 20 percent of American colleges—account for about one-third of all applications submitted.”
MIT, for instance, saw a massive 66% increase in applicants between 2020 and 2021. However, with no proportional increase in the number of seats available at this prestigious university—which ranks #3 on our list—its admission rate declined from 7% a year ago, to 4% this year. This means that the school admitted just over 1300 students from a pool of more than 33,000 applicants!
This trend means that the uphill climb into an elite school has only grown steeper in the wake of the pandemic. According to Robert J. Massa, principal and co-founder of Enrollment Intelligence Now, selective universities have benefitted the most from shifting realities. Massa observes that “For the institutions with brand recognition, that meant record numbers of applications in the wake of COVID-related test optional policies. Yields will be lower and waitlist activity will likely be high, with – pardon the expression – a ‘trickle down’ impact on many less selective colleges and universities. I would guess that waitlists at institutions with admit rates in the single digits will hit record levels.”
Of course, steep competition doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t apply to the elite schools on your list, especially if you can really see yourself thriving in a specific setting. But it does mean that you might want to hedge your bets by targeting a few schools where your odds of admission are higher. While the admission rates at elite colleges are climbing, most of the top schools on the next tier actually admit a majority of qualified applicants.
In other words, you don’t need to attend one of the most selective institutions in the U.S. to get a quality education and a reputable degree. In fact, depending on your goals and outlook, you might be better suited by simply avoiding the cost and competition in favor of something with a better personal fit.
Lucky for you, we happen to have an instrument called College Strategist that helps you find that fit. Start with our look at How to Choose Your Target, Safety and Reach Schools.