Any parents who bribed and cheated to get their kids into elite universities would be buying into a pervasive misconception. It's easy to assume that because students from elite schools make more money (they do), that going to those schools is what causes them to make more money. This is wrong.

How do we know? When researchers have investigated the value of going to a top high school or college, they've found the long-term financial benefits are, as one paper says, "comparable to zero." That is, students with the same abilities and ambitions will do equally well whether they go to an elite college or not. It's the kids who make the school — not the school that makes the kids.

In one telling study, a team of Princeton University economists followed students of comparable test scores and grades who applied to the most elite high school in the Boston area — Boston Latin. Some were admitted and others were rejected. The researchers also looked at comparable students accepted and rejected by second-tier selective high schools in the Boston area.

Boston Latin boasts much higher average SAT scores than second-tier schools, and those in turn boasted of higher SATs scores than the nonselective schools. The implication is the quality of education at these elite education boosts SAT scores.

But when the economists compared students with similar grades and test scores at the time they applied to high school, they found their later SAT scores were indistinguishable, whether they went to Boston Latin or not. The economists did the same comparison between similar students applying to second-tier schools and those attending unselective high schools, and again found SAT scores were indistinguishable.

The findings suggest there was absolutely no SAT advantage to going to the better schools. The higher average SATs in Boston Latin were probably caused by the selection process; the schools only admitted kids who did well on other tests, and those other test scores correlate to SAT scores.

This is all laid out in the book "The Formula: The Universal Laws of Success," which I've been rereading. As the author, Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, wrote: "We've established that, as a group, the Boston Latin kids do perform better when compared to their counterparts. … What the data tells us, though, is that the difference … is not because the school enhances their performance. It's because high achievers continue to excel no matter what education a school offers."

Another pair of economists, one also at Princeton University and the other at the research firm Mathematica, demonstrated that going to an Ivy League school doesn't help people make more money. They found it's more likely that Ivy League schools select for the kinds of students likely to make more money as adults.

In an initial study in 2002 and a follow-up study published in 2011, they compared students at Ivy League schools to those who were accepted but chose, perhaps for financial or personal reasons, to attend less selective colleges. In the second study, they also included students who had applied to Ivy League schools but were not accepted.

On average, Ivy League graduates come out earning twice as much as graduates of less selective schools, but when the researchers compared only students who were accepted into the Ivy League, there was no difference between those who went and those who did not, provided those rejected graduated from some other college.

The 2011 study, which was popularized in a New York Times column, showed that future financial success for comparable students didn't even hinge on where they were accepted, but did correlate with where they applied. The researchers speculate that applying to Harvard shows ambition, and ambition is correlated to financial success.

If the Ivy League bribery scandal played out as prosecutors suggest, with parents paying off officials, then some of the applicants deserve sympathy — for they are, like everyone else, limited by their own talents and ambitions. And those honest families trying to follow the rules can take heart that even if the cheaters hadn't been caught, they wouldn't have bribed their way into anything of lasting value.

 

Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She has a degree in geophysics from the California Institute of Technology.