Jacques Steinberg asks this question in his New York Times article (December 19, 2010), but he makes no conclusions because the data are too mixed and confusing. I sympathize. It’s hard to separate the student from the decision, so you can’t know if a talented student would have thrived and gone on to a life of success by going to a college they did not attend.
I have a different take on this. Elite colleges are only worth it if they are a good fit. If a student cannot have an intellectual home that is both challenging and supportive at an elite college, then there are many alternatives. Finding that fit is more difficult that most students and parents think, as I find most decisions are made on the size or location of the school, rather than a deeper sense of its community and curriculum.
Complicating this is that “elite” colleges, already a slippery idea (i.e., what is “elite”?), vary incredibly from each other. The most obvious difference is that every group of faculty is different, showing different strengths, personalities and priorities. So it’s hard to know if you’d have a better fit in one elite college or another. And it is worth the extra time to dig deeper to ask questions like:
- What does the curriculum look like? What do they require? How much freedom will you have?
- What is the sense of belonging and community? Does it encourage you to be different?
- What are the specialties and favorite courses of the faculty?
- How connected is the college to the community and the world around it?
A final thought. The best feature of a competitive school is not that it is competitive, fancy or “elite.” It’s that the students there are really smart, highly motivated, and likely to graduate with you. Over 90 percent of incoming freshmen graduate from these colleges, so you’ll have a solid class to enjoy your college lives together.