A College’s ‘Prestige’ Has Minimal Impact

by Lizzy Hermosilla ‘23

As college became an important facet of life, thousands of accredited institutions offer undergraduate and postgraduate education. Despite the number of institutions in the United States, there are some “name brand” ones, such as Harvard, UNC Chapel Hill, UCLA, and University of Michigan, that are coveted by students across the world. The importance of prestige holds too much weight in a college education, however, largely as a result of rankings such as the ones produced annually by U.S. News and World Report.
The mere exposure effect, a psychological phenomenon, states that people develop a preference for things based on sheer familiarity with the name and brand associated with the institution. In addition to the mere exposure effect, Nobelist Daniel Kahneman theorized that the human brain views a ranked list as a shortcut, a faster, more intuitive method of analysis. Many of the rankings lack the complete picture of what universities offer as a fit for students. U.S. News and World Report, arguably the foremost authority on collegiate rankings, uses 17 key factors to form their rankings of national universities. The criterion that most closely concerns students include: graduate indebtedness average, first-year retention rate, graduation rate, financial resources, class size, and faculty to student ratio. However, much of the other information used to create these rankings are supplied either by the school itself or based on the opinion of other institutions.

In March 2022 a former business dean at Temple University was sentenced to 14 months in prison and fined $250,000 for giving fraudulent data to U.S. News & World Report. Furthermore, Columbia University incorrectly reported data in 2022 and was named second on the list of national universities, calling the credibility of U.S. News and World into question. The university then announced that it will no longer provide data for rankings to the company. Despite many undergraduate programs continuing cooperation with U.S. News and World Report, Joseph Hock, Sherwood’s College and Career Advisor, advised students to use college rankings as “a resource to be taken with a grain of salt.”

In a 2002 study published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, economists Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger concluded that the salary boost from going to an extremely selective college is “generally indistinguishable from zero.” The conclusion also stated that the amount of hard work a student puts into their education is a better indicator for success than the university on their diploma.

A more recent study conducted in 2017 reported a 14 percent increase in earnings, for women, as a result of attending a school with an average SAT score 100 points higher than the national average. However, this increase is not because of an increased salary, but rather a result of them continuing their career after marriage and childbirth. A 2017 study on social mobility stated, “Rates of upper-tail (bottom quintile to top one percent) mobility are highest at elite colleges, such as Ivy League universities.” An article in The Atlantic described this idea of social mobility as a result of the resources lower income students gain at elite universities that well-off students already had through their parents. The culmination of these studies shows that an elite college education can positively impact low income students, minorities, and women comparatively more than their wealthier counterparts.

An undergraduate degree from a prestigious university has a short half-life once the recipient has entered the job market. “I think [prestige of a college] only gets you so far,” explained counselor Kelly Singleton. “Once you get that first job, after that [future employers] are going to be looking at references from your job and from your employer. Yes, you’ll still have your resume that says you went to a prestigious school, but they’re going to want to see how you perform in that job.”