Going to an Elite College Matters for Women, But Not Men

(Bloomberg) -- Going to an elite college boosts women’s earning power, but not men’s, according to a new study that looked at data from students who graduated decades ago.

Female graduates from elite schools made 14 percent more than women with comparable entrance-exam scores who attended less selective schools, researchers at the University of Virginia and Tulane University said in a working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Men, however, earned roughly the same regardless.

The researchers caution that while the analysis is new, the data isn’t: The findings are based on a 1996 survey of the graduating class of 1976.

This study “is just a point in time,” said Amalia Miller, an economist at the University of Virginia. “College is different today.”

Still, the researchers observed that women who’d gone to elite schools -- defined as having average entrance-exam scores 100 points higher than the less selective schools (the difference, today, between Cornell and Binghamton University in New York) -- were more likely to stay in the workforce compared to women who went to less selective schools.

As the nation’s student debt piles up, parents of teenagers may want to take the findings into account. For smart boys, the price of a brand-name school may be irrelevant to their earning power.

Marrying Later

In this study, the researchers didn’t look at race or class, though a 2017 study found that low-income students of any gender benefit from a elite degree.

The researchers suspect that the bump women get reflects different patterns of work and marriage. Female graduates of elite colleges tend to get married later, stay in the workforce after they get married, and to choose a spouse with a similar educational pedigree.

Women who delay marriage are also likely to delay having kids, which has a negative effect on women’s wages. In a 2011 paper, Miller found that for female college graduates, having children later has career benefits.

These findings push back against the “opt-out” revolution, a theory popularized by a 2003 New York Times article that suggested that gains in educational attainment weren’t enough to keep highly educated young women in the workforce. Some women do stop working, but women who went to elite schools are more likely to have part-time or paid work decades after graduating, the study finds.

Women who go to better schools may also have better career prospects, which keeps them in the labor force, even if they have a spouse taking home a good salary.

“Do you want to work even if you don’t have to? Maybe it depends on the job you can get,” Miller said. “Maybe attending a more elite school gave them access to opportunities that they wouldn’t have had.”

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