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Does attending an Ivy League school really matter?

There are plenty of incredibly smart and successful people that did not go to ivy leagues.
Also, does doing extremely well in high school and then getting into a top 10 college really
mean that you are any more intelligent or that you will be any more successful than those
who did not attend an ivy league?

Parke's Answer
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Parke Muth, Served as faculty member and dean for 28 years at top 25 university.
3.8k Views Upvoted by Lawrence Chiou, Harvard undergrad, Stanford grad
Parke has 210+ answers in Colleges and Universities.

Thanks for the A2A.

There have been many who have written here and in the media about this topic and the
answers they propose are, at times, conflicting or incomplete. I am going to quote from just
three of the big names who have addressed this issue and then make some comments of my
Writing in The Atlantic, Derek Thompson supports what many have already said in
response to this question:
It matters where you go to college, plain and simple. Graduates of the most-select
colleges often earn more than graduates of less-select public universities, who are
employed at higher rates than those of community colleges, who get more calls from
potential employers than graduates of online universities. A world where "44.8% of
billionaires, 55.9% of [Forbes's most] powerful women, and 85.2% of [Forbes's most]
powerful men" attended elite schools is not a place where college doesn't matter.
One of the most reproduced statistics from Frank Bruni's new book on this subject, Where
You Go Is Not Who You'll Be, is that just 30 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs went to elite
colleges like the Ivies. (I have not read his book, and am not commenting on its quality
outside of this statistic.) This factoid is beingwidely interpreted to prove that elite schools
are overrated predictors of business success. But that's the wrong way to think about it. If

a tiny share of college attendees account for a third of business leaders, that means
graduates of elite schools are at least 10 times more likely than their peers to be Fortune
500 CEOs.
The Inspirational 'It Doesn't Matter Where You Go to College' Meme Is Wrong
I agree with Thompson. At least I do in part. The data about CEOs does show that business
leaders are from elite schools in far greater percentages than the population of students at
these schools would predict if the kind of school did not matter. He is also correct to point
out the there are not just two kinds of school, elite and non-elite. There are thousands of
schools and they extend across a wide range in terms of how much they prepare students for
success and also what kinds of students enroll in these schools. If I ended my answer here it
would fall under the rubric of common wisdomof course it matters which school you
On the other hand, Thompson cites a statistic from Frank Brunis book. Thompson says he
has not read the book, which given what Bruni says throughout he should have, since the
thesis is that it does not matter nearly as much as most think where one goes to college. The
quotes from Brunis cite what looks to be some solid research that suggests it is not the
name of the school that matters; instead, it is the background, preparation and grit of the
individual student:
And similar dynamics could well be at work in any discrepancy between the achievement
levels of elite-college alumni and the achievement levels of graduates of less selective
schools. A 2011 study done by Alan Krueger, a Princeton economics professor who served
for two years as the chairman of President Obamas Council of Economic Advisers, and
Stacy Dale, an analyst with Mathematica Policy Research, tried to adjust for that sort of
thing. Krueger and Dale examined sets of students who had started college in 1976 and in
1989; that way, they could get a sense of incomes both earlier and later careers. And they
determined that the graduates of more selective colleges could expect earnings 7 percent
greater than graduates of less selective colleges, even if the graduates in that latter group
had SAT scores and high school GPAs identical to those of their peers at more exclusive
But then Krueger and Dale made their adjustment. They looked specifically at graduates
of less selective colleges who had applied to more exclusive ones even though they hadnt
gone there. And they discovered that the difference in earnings pretty much
disappeared. Someone with a given SAT score who had gone to Penn State but
had also applied to the University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school with
a much lower acceptance rate, generally made the same amount of money
later on as someone with an equivalent SAT score who was an alumnus of
UPenn. It was a fascinating conclusion, suggesting that at a certain level of

intelligence and competence, what drives earnings isnt the luster of the
diploma but the type of person in possession of it. If he or she came from a
background and a mindset that made an elite institution seem desirable and
within reach, then he or she was more likely to have the tools and
temperament for a high income down the road, whether an elite institution
ultimately came into play or not. This was powerfully reflected in a related
determination that Krueger and Dale made in their 2011 study: The average
SAT score of schools that rejected a student is more than twice as strong a
predictor of the students subsequent earnings as the average SAT score of the
school the student attended. When I interviewed Krueger, he explained: The
students are basically self-sorting when they apply to colleges, and the more ambitious
students are applying to the most elite schools. The inclination to consider UPenn, not
attendance at UPenn, is the key to future earnings. Or maybe its the inclination coupled
with assertiveness and confidence, two other attributes suggested by the fact of applying
to a college or colleges where admissions are fiercely competitive. Another way to read
my results is: A good student can get a good education just about anywhere,
and a student whos not that serious about learning isnt going to get much
benefit, Krueger told me.
Bruni, Frank (2015-03-17). Where You Go Is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College
Admissions Mania (pp. 139-140). Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Brunis book has received lots of attention and it should. I find some of the things he says
right on target. I also think that it will mislead a lot of people who do not read it closely. The
data he cites, however, underscore what I find best about his book. If a student is highly
motivated and applies to top schools it does not matter if he or she gets in. The character
traits and the academic background of students who apply to the most elite schools predict
future success. To me this makes perfect sense. A smart student who is motived and
ambitious will take advantage of what his or her school offers. They will knock on doors and
find research or internships or independent studies. At hundreds of schools there are these
opportunities. But not many students in the aggregate of the college going population have
the desire to do everything they can to get the most out of their education. The stats about
this are pretty clear too. In the book Academically Adrift, the authors underscore that over a
third of students who graduate from college have not increased their critical thinking skills
at all. It is possible, all too possible, to get through 4 years without learning much. At the far
end of the spectrum, however, the one Bruni talks about in his book, there are students who
go to less than great schools and then go on to successful lives in virtually every field
imaginable. But these are the ones who are motivated to do so. They are the ones who work
hard and take the initiative to get the most out of their education.

But I want to comment again on what is the key to success for student regardless of the
name of the school. The students who have done well in secondary school, who have high
grades and strong programs and strong testing and are also wired to seek out opportunities
are the ones Bruni cites in his book as examples of those who do well in life. Many in
education do not like it when testing becomes a prediction of future success. But testing at
the far ends of the spectrum do predict well. Those who apply to Ivies are usually in the
2100 range and have a slate of APs/IBs to their credit and almost all As. Few students
without these things apply as they would never be encouraged by counselors to do so, given
the exceptionally low acceptance rates. Some students still do so, but not many who are not
near the top of the class. To sum up-- the most important part about this issue --smart
students tend to do well in college. Those who have poor scores often struggle to graduate.

The last writer I will quote is Jeffrey Selingo. His book, College (Un)Bound, is one of the
best overviews of what is happening today at US colleges and universities. The data he cites
is well researched and he has a lot to say about what needs to change in education that I
think is useful. I rated it as one of the my best books when it came out in 2013
Parke Muth, consultant: Education and Religion: What Do They Have in Common? Best
Books 2013, Part 2
Just recently, in a piece he has written for the Washington Post, Selingo essentially brings
together the points each of the above authors makes:
Bruni worries about the unintended consequences of putting so much pressure on
teenagers to get admitted to a selective school. Last year, Bruni taught a course at
Princeton and saw firsthand how many students view life as a series of challenges, a set of
hoops to jump through, and getting into Princeton was one of them.
A significant number of students had put so much energy into getting in, and then getting
ready for the next competition, the job, he said, that they didnt save their best energy
and best selves for tilling the four-year experience for what its worth.
A college alone doesnt make a successful graduate. Sure, top colleges provide a peer
network that greatly helps both while students are on campus and
afterwards as alumni. But someone with grit and ambition can succeed at
many different types of schools.
Selingo admits that it does matter where you go to school, but also says that it doesnt too. I
dont see this as a contradiction but rather as a way of bringing in two different types of
thinking and combining them. Some schools like the Ivies will have on campus recruiting
that many schools do not have. The alumni network will have more people placed in certain

sought after businesses, government positions, non-profits and start-ups etc. At the same
time, those students who have the background and personality to achieve well at a school
that is not necessarily categorized as elite still have the chance to rise to the top too. Both of
conclusions are backed by data.
I said that I would quote three writers, but I will now mention a fourth since I have referred
to him and the research he cites many times before. Malcolm Gladwell in his Book David
and Goliath, has a chapter on education in which he tries to encourage students to attend
schools at which they are relatively certain they will do well. He cites the example of a
student who chose an Ivy over another fine school. Once there, as a premed, she had
problems standing out in classes. Her confidence was shattered and she had to change her
life plans. He talks about how research shows it is better to be a big fish in a smaller pond
(by which he means the students are not all superstars rather than the referring to the size
of the school).
For students, the choice of a school, as I have said again and again to families and students,
should be about fit, not about name. A student wants to go to a place full of confidence and a
desire to squeeze everything out of the time spent on campus. Students who do this will, for
the most part, experience tremendous growth, a great deal of success, and, perhaps, a lot
less stress.
Written 18 Apr 2014 View Upvotes

Philip Goetz Request Bio


If you download admission statistics from National Center for Education Statistics for the 8
ivy league schools, you'll find that only about 10% of US students in the 98th percentile on
their SAT scores attend an ivy league school, and 15% attend one of the top 17 US schools
(ranked by SAT score). Yet if you look at faculty at research institutions, you'll find that
about 90% of them attended a either top-ten US school in their field, or a top-two school in
some other country. You'll get similar results if you look at NIH grant winners. You'll get
nearly 100% if you count recently-awarded Nobel prizes in physics (though a much weaker
effect for prizes awarded before 1980). I think you might find nearly 100% if you counted
institutional affiliations in scientific publications that are reported by major press outlets.
So 90% of research positions (and almost all media coverage and Nobel prizes) goes to the
15% of top students who attended top schools, and 10% goes to the other 85% of equallyintelligent students. This means that attending a top-ten school gives you an odds-ratio

multiplier of about 72 to your chance of success in an academic field. For the most-lucrative
careers, law, investment banking, and management consulting, the odds multiplier is
higher, since the firms that pay high salaries recruit only from ivy league schools.
For comparison, "The returns to cognitive abilities and personality traits in Germany" found
that a one standard deviation increase in IQ gave an average 2% increase in income (4% for
males, 0% for females). According toThe Personal Distribution of Income in an
International Perspective (Richard Hauser), the coefficient of variation for income
(standard deviation divided by median) in Germany was 0.37. Thus a one standard
deviation increase in IQ increases income by 2%, which is .05 standard deviations. On a ztable, z<0.05 for 52% of the population, so this one-standard-deviation increase in IQ
corresponds to an odds ratio multiplier for success (measured by ranking of income, not by
income) of .52 / .50 = 1.04.
72 =~ 1.04^109, meaning that the impact of attending an ivy league on career success is
about one hundred times as great as the impact of a one-standard-deviation increase in
intelligence, and fifty times as great as the impact of the two-standard-deviations above
average IQ generally required to get into a top-ten school. ("Fifty times" here means you
would need 50 independent advantages, each as powerful as that 2-stdev IQ difference, to
have the same effect as attending a top-ten school.)
This comparison makes some false assumptions about linearity, notably that a 2-standarddeviation IQ increase has twice the impact of 2 1-standard-deviation increases. Studies I've
seen suggest that the effect is less than linear, meaning this may overestimate the impact of
a 2-std-deviation IQ increase, and hence underestimate the relative importance of an ivy
league degree. It measures career success of ivy league graduates using desirability of their
jobs, and compares that to the success effect of intelligence measured by income rank. I
think this is a reasonable assumption, since the more-desirable jobs pay higher, so income
rank gives the same result regardless of differences in income distribution in academia vs.
private sector. The most dubious assumption is comparing career success for scientists
(when measuring effect of an ivy league degree), to career success of the population at large
(when measuring effect of IQ).
I've since heard from Garret Jones at George Mason that, in other studies, a two standard
deviation rise in income predicts a 30% rise in wage, or .81 standard deviations. z < .81 for
79% of the population; 79 / 50 = 1.58, 72 ~ 1.58^9.35, in which case the impact of attending
a top-ten school would be only about 9 times as great as the impact of the intelligence
needed to do so.
Updated 3 Jun 2014 View Upvotes