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Yes, College Is Worth It—Especially If You’re a Man

New research finds graduates of highly selective schools earn more, at least early in their careers. But there’s a huge gender gap.

By Tom Jacobs


Harvard University. (Photo: Darren McCollester/Newsmakers)

You know those crazy parents who insist their kid get into the right pre-school, so they can then get into a proper prep school, and ultimately into a prestigious university? Sad, right?

Sure, but their underlying assumption — that there is great value in graduating from the right school gives — is absolutely correct. At least, that’s the conclusion of a newly published study.

“We find large earnings payoffs from attending a highly selective college, both four and ten years after graduation,” Dirk Witteveen and Paul Attewell of the City University of New York write in the journal Social Science Research.

Not surprisingly, the researchers report other factors also play a large role in determining income, including one’s college major. They also find an eyebrow-raising gender gap, even among graduates of top-ranked schools.

“Nevertheless,” the sociologists conclude, “earnings differences attributable to college selectivity are striking.”

Witteveen and Attewell used data from the National Center for Education Statistics on two groups of graduates of four-year colleges. Members of the first group (3,840 in total) earned their bachelor’s degrees in 1992 or 1993, and were interviewed 10 years later.

Those in the second group (4,670) graduated in 2007 or 2008, and were interviewed four years later. Among the questions they answered is “what is your current salary?” All were employed full time at the time of the interview.

The schools they attended were ranked by Barron’s Profile of American Colleges on a six-point scale ranging from “most selective” to “non-selective.” The publication based this on a combination of factors, including the high school grade point average of its students, and the percentage of applicants who were admitted.

Using their most conservative model, the researchers found graduates of the lowest-ranking colleges earned 21 percent less, on average, than those from the most prestigious ones. Even more tellingly, those with degrees from schools in the second-highest category earned an average of 11.3 percent less than their counterparts who attended the top-ranked schools.

The reasons for this aren’t entirely clear, but the researchers point to several possibilities. They note that previous studies “have found that employers use college selectivity and reputation as a shortcut for estimating the quality of job applicants,” increasing the odds of getting hired. In addition, “elite colleges mobilize social networks among alumni and students” to help recent graduates find good jobs.

That sort of thing is formally known as an “old boys’ network,” and another of Witteveen and Attewell’s findings suggest the advantages they identify disproportionately go to men.

Even when taking their college major into account, “The earnings difference between full-time employed women and their male classmates is striking,” they write. Among both the 1992–93 and the 2007–08 graduates, “women earn about 16 percent less than their male counterparts who graduated from a similarly elite college.

“The large gender disadvantage in earnings for full-time employees is not overcome by attending a relatively more selective institution,” they conclude.

Indeed, among the 1992–93 graduates, “full-time employed women with a BA degree from the most selective colleges earned $62,210 — about as much as men who graduated from the least selective schools, who earned $63,923.”

So, graduating from a top university does help you land a good-paying job. But it can’t compensate for that other advantage: being born a male.