Does the Ivy League Matter?

Harvard University Photograph by Barry Winiker/Getty Images

There are a lot of reasons it might make a difference where you go to college. A new study says that the likelihood you’ll graduate isn’t one of them. The findings come amid a national conversation about President Obama’s effort to hold colleges accountable to the public, and Internet buzz over whether it’s worth going to an Ivy League school.

At first, researchers noted that elite colleges seem better than less selective ones—as defined by the average SAT score of the student body—at getting their students out of the library and into the workforce. Ivy League schools are among those that pride themselves on selectivity. And the higher the average SAT score, the higher the school’s graduation rate, according to the study, published this week (PDF) in the American Educational Research Journal.

But when the researchers scrutinized the raw data, they saw that advantage slip away. When controlling for qualities in students other than their test scores, such as race or parents’ education and income, the study found that people’s chances of graduating depended more on their personal characteristics than the selectivity of their college. In other words, an individual student will probably have a similar likelihood of graduating no matter what college he goes to.

“What dominates is [a student’s] background, how well they are prepared in high school. Students who come from low-income families, or families where the parents haven’t gone to college,” are less likely to graduate, says Paul Attewell, one of the study’s authors. “It’s not some magic thing that the college is doing.”

The Obama administration wants to rank colleges based partly on their graduation rates, and link federal student aid to each college’s performance. Under the logic that a school’s central responsibility is to get students from point A (icebreakers at orientation) to point B (sweating alcohol at commencement), this makes sense. But what if, as this new research suggests, colleges’ success at graduating students hinges on the income and family background of the students whom they admit?

“The danger of the Obama policy direction is that it may create an incentive for schools to up their graduation rates, and the easiest way to up your graduation rate is just to be more selective,” says Attewell. “That potentially has very bad social justice implications, because you are just avoiding the most needy students.”

The lesson of the study is that the Princetons and Harvards of the world work well partly because they tend to attract kids who are already on the fast track. The findings are less hot on the wisdom of avoiding Ivies and schools like them altogether, as a recent New Republic piece counseled.

“We found that if you’re a kid from a low-income background and you are lucky enough to get into a selective college, you are not harming yourself in terms of your chance of graduating,” Attewell says. “There’s nothing in our data that says its bad to go to an Ivy or a similar college.”

Just watch out for the cult-like salutes.

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