"While many students from elite colleges enjoy successful careers, their success is not the result of attending elite schools," says University of Michigan sociologist Jennie Brand, lead author of the study. "Instead, it's the result of characteristics such as scholastic achievement and parents' income that influence both the probability that they will attend an elite school and their future career outcomes."

The study, published in the journal Social Science Research, followed 1,733 men who graduated from Wisconsin high schools in 1957 and went to college within two years. "We were able to look at the outcomes up to 35 years after students graduated from high school, during their early, mid, and late careers," says Brand, who is affiliated with the U-M Institute for Social Research and the U-M School of Public Health.

For the study, Brand and coauthor Charles Halaby of the University of Wisconsin used propensity score matching methods, an econometric technique rarely used in studies of elite college effects. Using a wide variety of relevant characteristics, including mental ability, high-school grades, college-preparatory programs, and family background, the researchers matched students who attended elite schools to otherwise equivalent students who attended less-prestigious colleges. Then they compared the actual effects of attending one type of college or the other, and the potential effects of attending the type of college each student did not, in fact, attend.

To identify elite schools, the researchers used Barron's Profiles, the only authoritative ranking available for that period of time. Colleges in the "most-competitive" and "highly competitive" categories were considered elite for the study purposes. Among the elite schools respondents in the study attended were Lawrence University, Northwestern University, Dartmouth, Carleton College, Wellesley, Cornell, Duke, and the University of Chicago.

Students who attended an elite college were about 6% more likely than other students to graduate from college and they were 12.5% more likely to earn an advanced degree. But using the potential outcome matching technique, researchers found that equivalent students who attended lessselective colleges would have been four times as likely to graduate if they had attended elite schools.

In terms of occupational status and wages, elite college students showed no significant gains in their early, mid, or late careers. In contrast, students who attended less-selective schools would have had occupational status gains throughout their careers had they attended elite schools. These gains were significant — the difference, for example, between being a designer and an architect.

Brand cautions that the analysis pertains to a single cohort of males who entered college in the early 1960s. "The market for higher education has shifted in the direction of greater selectivity," Brand says. "This process could tend to increase elite college effects, but the jury is still out on this."

According to Brand, the findings also suggest the importance of outreach programs to encourage more students to attend elite schools. "Students who otherwise might not apply to or attend these schools are the ones who might get the most benefit from the experience," she says.