School Choice Does Affect Graduate Outcomes, Researchers Say

Posted By Eliana Osborn on September 8, 2016 at 5:18 pm
School Choice Does Affect Graduate Outcomes, Researchers Say

How important is name brand in choosing a university and determining graduate outcomes? The debate rages even as schools spend millions on recruitment and try to skew data to make themselves look more desirable. For the top echelon of universities, there is now data supporting the benefit of attending a highly selective school.

Paul Attewell and Dirk Witteveen from City University of New York Graduate Center presented at the recent American Sociological Association Conference. Their research finds significant economic payoffs for those at the most selective schools. The paper, as yet unpublished, acknowledges the broad range of institutions that make up the American higher education scene. While nearly everyone agrees that there are levels of quality difference between vocational and Ivy League schools, more nuanced values are harder to come by – and evaluate.

Witteveen and Attewell write in The Earnings Payoff from Attending a Selective College, “There is much variation even within the four-year degree sector, where there are state-funded, private non-profit, and for-profit colleges, some of which are highly selective, while others enroll nearly all applicants who meet basic educational qualifications.”  The challenge for students is to know when paying a higher price is worth it – when one school is a worthy investment, producing better graduate outcomes, while another just costs more.

Determining graduate outcomes in the study

Data from two groups of students, using the Baccalaureate & Beyond Longitudinal Studies, provided the basis of the Earnings research. Transcripts are provided and interviews are conducted with students upon graduation as well as 10 years later for follow-up, providing the ‘payoff’ information in the study.

The biggest finding: “With ten years of potential labor market experience, graduates from the most selective colleges earn about $16,000 more annually compared to graduates from average selective colleges.” This comes despite changes in labor markets, who attends college, and other factors that mirror American population changes generally.

Women who graduated in 1993 earned 72% of male salaries in 2003 compared with 2008 graduates measured in 2012, who were earning 82%. As the authors note, “for the 1993 cohort ten years after graduation, full-time employed women with a BA degree from the most selective colleges earned $62,400, about as much as men who graduated from the least selective schools.” For women, being incredibly smart, talented and motivated matters less in terms of earnings than simply showing up male.

Another finding is that selectivity is more important than major. It is no surprise that some majors have higher paying graduate outcomes than others, but the study found that this effect is mitigated by attending a more selective school. Higher paying majors, such as engineering, at less selective schools still earned less than lower paying majors, such as education, at more selective schools.

Previous studies have looked at the selectivity boost and found little benefit in graduate outcomes after accounting for other factors. This includes things like background economics, test scores, and other baseline data. Once like students are compared, analysis would “cause the college selectivity effect to shrink to near zero” except for highly motivated students from underprivileged backgrounds.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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