You may have wondered what exactly separates the elite colleges from just top colleges and universities. Or if going to an elite college is even worth it when there is a perfectly good state university 30 minutes away. Well, to get one thing straight, not all elite colleges are Ivy League schools, like Princeton, Harvard, and Brown. Some elite colleges include Stanford, MIT, and the University of Chicago. These schools are all extremely prestigious and highly selective. However, they are not in the Ivy League athletic conference located in the Northeast United States. Examples of some of the nation’s top universities include USC, the University of Michigan, and UC Berkeley. While these latter options are considered great schools, they fall short in a couple of ways compared to elite colleges.

Reason #1: The experience of going to an elite college.

There is a distinct difference in the level of intellectual energy between elite colleges and top colleges. Elite colleges will challenge you more, encourage you to think deeper, and open up more opportunities for you. For people that love to learn and engage with like-minded individuals, an elite college is the perfect place to be! You can find tons of people who will share the same interests and passions as you do. It’s rare to get a chance to be surrounded by so many people who have big dreams and genuinely want to change the world for the better—take it while you can.

I’ve attended both Stanford and USC. Both have great programs, but Stanford had an intellectual climate and excitement that I just didn’t encounter at USC. 

Reason #2: The network.

All schools and colleges have some type of networking and alumni system available to students. It’s one of the most helpful tools you can get from the college experience. Upon admission, you are immediately connected to other students, faculty, and alumni from the school, and you are encouraged to reach out for help at any time. And the connections don’t just end when you graduate; they continue because you are permanently part of the institution. Whether it’s looking for a job in a specific field or living in a completely new place and not knowing anyone, drawing upon this community of people from college can be a major lifesaver.

Being connected to an elite college’s network might be even better than any other college’s. So many people from these schools are engaged in their communities and have accomplished amazing goals. It’s inspiring to know that you are a part of that collegiate network–YOU can do it too. And the amazing part of this is that all of these people are willing to lend a hand if you reach out to them. Brooke has personally used her Stanford connections when she needed help.

The network becomes even more important for students who don’t already have connections, such as people who are the first in their family to attend college. It can be difficult to gain access to opportunities when you don’t have an established way in. With a network of people willing to help you, it’s much easier to make your mark on the world.

Reason #3: School choice DOES matter in some fields; evidence is mixed in terms of economic outcome.

In 2016, BYU released a study that found business and liberal-arts majors often needed the prestige of an elite college under their belt to make a real impact on their future earnings expectations. Meanwhile, education and STEM majors (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) received about the same income regardless of their college’s reputation. In other words: the major you choose to study can be just as important as the college you choose to attend.

Paul Attewell, a professor of urban education at the City University of New York Graduate Center, and Dirk Witteveen, a doctoral student in sociology at CUNY, also conducted research that corroborated BYU’s findings. In their study, Attewell and Witteveen drew data from the federal Baccalaureate and Beyond Longitudinal Study and classifications from Barron’s college guides. These classifications grouped colleges on selectivity based on past SAT/ACT scores and the percentage of students admitted. Attewell and Witteveen established controls for any factors that would make someone earn more money post-graduation. These factors looked beyond the college experience itself, and included gender, age, race, parental income, parental education, SAT, college grade point average, college major, private/public institution, advanced degree after graduation and region of employment after college.

The results of the study concluded that graduates of the most competitive colleges are likely to earn (10 years post-graduation):

8% more in income than graduates of highly selective (but not the most competitive) colleges.

11% more than graduates of colleges that are just selective

19% more than graduates of colleges that are not competitive in admissions.

The study found, however, that the advantage of graduating from a competitive college is not as substantial as one would expect when it is adjusted for socioeconomic status. In other words, if someone already has a leg up in life by coming from a privileged background, they might not need the extra padding of an elite college on their resume to look good to employers.

Graduating from an elite college also matters in some job fields.

Blue chip companies, Wall Street, and consulting firms all display heavy preference towards graduates from competitive universities.

Reason #4: You are more likely to graduate. And graduating DOES matter.

No matter what anyone says, graduating from college does matter. Just attending a good school is not enough–you have to ride it out to the end! On another note, if you are going to pay to attend any college, the whole point is to ultimately get a degree from it! William Bowen, economist and former President of Princeton University, wrote a book focusing on students who had to make choices between selective colleges, slightly-less selective colleges, and brand-name public schools. This book isn’t just for elite college hopefuls–it’s for any student making the choice between schools. Should you pick the better school that costs more or the lower-ranked school that’s cheaper and closer to home? Is the higher tuition worth it?

Statistics show that if you go to a better school, you are more likely to graduate and get a degree. This is true for Princeton vs. your local community college. However, it is also the case for University of Connecticut vs. Central Connecticut University. So, even if elite colleges are off your radar, you should still apply to the best schools you can attend with the assurance of a high graduation rate, which is an important factor to consider.

Look at your specific major’s graduation rate and do a comparison across the schools you’re considering. Pay attention to multiple factors, such as whether or not there is a difference between the genders of students. Be as specific as possible. Even though you probably wouldn’t even dream about dropping out at this time, it’s still something that happens to people. It’s always good to be prepared with as much information as possible.

Want to learn more about college admission? Check out this post about the difference between early action and early decision, and how to decide between the two. Also, check out our YouTube channel for test prep tips and content. Take a look at our ACT and SAT online courses too if you want help in preparing for your upcoming exams!