Okay, so employers don’t care so much about where recent graduates went to college, and work experience is what matters most to them. That’s important to know. Are there other reasons it might be important to have attended a more selective college, though?

Hopefully salary is not your number one concern, but making enough to be able to live comfortably is certainly desirable, and there are many websites that are happy to tell you whose graduates earn the most. The US Department of Education’s College Scorecard and Payscale.com are the primary sources of data, and each has its own rankings. And magazines like Forbes and Money have created their own formulas using this and other data to come up with more complicated ways of arriving at their lists.

Each ranking system has its flaws, but there’s no denying that graduates of some colleges earn more than those of other colleges, and that the more selective a college is the higher its rank is likely to be. There’s clearly a close relationship between college selectivity and career earnings of their graduates. So that means there is good reason to endure whatever stress is necessary to get your kids into the most selective college possible. Right?

Well, no.

Thank God for the scientific method, and for those who know how to use it, because there are an awful lot of correlational relationships we’d be believing implied causation if it weren’t for those who know how to ask good questions and then answer them with authority.

Our heroes in this instance are two economists, Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger, who published an initial study in 2002 and a follow-up in 2011 in the Journal of Human Resources (link to study) that looked at the question of college selectivity and future earnings. Yes, that’s the same Alan Krueger who served as Chief Economic Advisor to President Obama. And yes, that’s the same Alan Krueger who received his undergraduate degree from Cornell and his Master’s and PhD. from Harvard, and who was a professor at Princeton, coauthoring research with Ms. Dale, who holds a Master’s degree from Princeton, that shows that attending such schools doesn’t affect a person’s earnings.

What Dale and Krueger found both times, after controlling for potentially confounding variables, is that the selectivity of the college does not have an effect on earnings. Students at the most selective colleges earn more because these schools get first pick of many of the most capable, ambitious, hard-working high school students in the world, most of whom go on to become highly capable, ambitious, hard-working adults.

This research and subsequent research by others has suggested that exceptions to this appear to exist for those of African and Hispanic descent, those whose parents had not attended college, and those from low-income families. They speculated that these groups may benefit slightly from having access to a network that they otherwise would not have had.

So yes, students who attend more selective colleges earn more. But no, for the vast majority it has nothing to do with their attendance at those colleges. It’s not a big leap at all to conclude that the factor that matters most is the individual and the assets he or she brings to the workforce. Even for those groups that may be getting a small salary boost from attending a more selective college, it’s difficult to imagine that their career success was dependent upon attendance at that school. I’m sure further research will be looking at this in detail.