The following factors are worth taking into explicit consideration:
- Prestige/Selectivity: There are pros and cons of attending a more selective college, and what's best may depend on the individual.
- Flexibility for students: Some colleges offer students more freedom to shape their experience. The more freedom a college offers you, the better prospects you have for getting a lot out of the experience.
- Strength in a given academic subject: Colleges of a given prestige level vary substantially in how strong they are in a given academic subject. If you have a very strong and specific academic interest, you should do research to find out which colleges have the best departments in that field.
- Cost: Colleges that offer very similar academic experiences can vary widely in cost for the student based on their prestige, location, and other factors. However, the apparent cost of a college can be very unrepresentative owing to the possibility of receiving financial aid, and colleges that are apparently much more expensive than others may cost the same amount for you.
More college comparisons
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The selectivity of the college that you attend
We list some pros of attending more selective colleges and pros of attending less selective colleges below. As a general remark, it should be noted that a large study found (in rough terms) that amongst students of comparable ability and ambition, there was no difference in earnings between those who attended more selective colleges and those who attended less selective colleges.
Pros of attending a more selective college
Signaling to employers
Employers give weight to the prestige of college attended. However, the effect size is smaller than it might seem. In a 2013 Gallup Poll, 9% of business leaders said that the college a job applicant attended is “very important” to managers making hiring decisions, and 37% said that it’s “somewhat important.” Employers listed college attended as the least important of the 4 factors that they were asked about, behind major choice.
More capable peer group
Having a more capable peer group can lead to better learning opportunities and give one access to better advice. Harvard student Ben Kuhn wrote
By watching how more competent people work and think, you can often pick up useful study habits and better techniques for the subject you’re studying. I’ve found this especially true in CS classes, where I’ve had this experience from both sides, e.g. teaching classmates how to use Git and picking up C coding style and tricks from better programmers.
These considerations generally favor more selective schools, but not as strongly as might meet the eye: less selective schools often have honors courses and honors programs, where one might be able to meet students as capable as those who one would be interacting with at less selective colleges (though the best students at more selective colleges will generally be stronger than the best students at less selective colleges).
Mentorship from higher quality professors
If you're pursuing a career in research and/or academia, having exposure to higher quality professors as an undergraduate can give you a head start. In particular, some professors do research with undergraduates, and if you can do research with higher quality professors, you can get to the cutting edge of the field faster, and learn more by observing how they think.
More accomplished professors are also better positioned to help you get into a good graduate school and network within their fields.
KEEP IN MIND: You usually have to take initiative to get good research opportunities as an undergraduate, and talk with the professors whose research interests you. You shouldn't expect to get good research opportunities by default.
Going to a more selective college will generally expose one to people who will be in higher places later on in life, and who will correspondingly be able to connect one with influential people in one’s professional field, who may get one a high paying job and so forth. Such people may also serve as professional collaborators, for example, if one wants to do a startup right out of college.
As above, the effect here is smaller than might initially meet the eye, because one might be able to get similar benefits by interacting with the most capable students at a less selective college.
Venture capitalist Paul Graham wrote
In addition to the power of the brand name, graduates of elite colleges have two critical qualities that plug right into the way large organizations work. [...] Having been to an elite college makes them more confident. [...] Since individual performance is so hard to measure in large organizations, their own confidence would have been the starting point for their reputation.
Pros of attending a less selective college
Carl Shulman suggested that going to a more selective colleges reduces one's expected GPA, because of higher grading standards, on account of students being grades based on how they compare with stronger students.
This may or may not be true: average grades at more selective colleges tend to have higher average GPAs than less selective colleges: for example, Wikipedia reports that average GPA at Harvard was 3.48 (as of 2004), in contrast with UC San Diego, which has average GPA of 3.05. So it could be that the grading standards at the two colleges are similar despite Harvard having a more competitive peer group, or even that grading is harder at UC San Diego.
This is a matter that warrants further investigation. But it seems more likely that grading is harder at more selective colleges than it is that grading is harder at less selective colleges, and this factor favors going to a less selective college. GPA is a major input into law and medical school admissions (reported to be much more significant than college attended), so going to a less selective college could increase one's prospects for gaining admission to professional school.
Relatedly, if one goes to a less selective college, one might have better prospects for being able to handle a more demanding major, and in a 2013 Gallup Poll, business leaders surveyed listed the subject that a student majored in as significantly more important than college attended, in the context of hiring decisions.
Some people have suggested that being a "big fish in a small pond" increases a student's confidence relative to being a "small fish in a big pond." To the extent that this is true, attending a less selective college has psychological benefits, which could feed into later life success.
Some people report to having a subjective sense that being in a less elite environment was helpful to them, because it forced them to be independent (on account of being different from their peers), whereas had they been in an elite environment, they would have "gone with the flow" and uncritically made their decisions based on what their peers were doing. Thus, going to a less selective college could be better for personal growth.
More attention from professors
If a student goes to a less selective college, the student has better prospects for standing out as an exceptionally strong student. This can lead to professors' willingness to and interest in mentoring the student, providing him or her with valuable educational opportunities that the student might not have if he or she was grouped with students of similar ability, where the student would be more likely to come across as "run of the mill" to professors.
Diverse colleges give you more options
Some colleges give you more flexibility with respect to the classes that you take, the classmates you spend time with, and the faculty who you interact with. The more flexibility you have, the more potential you have to make the most out of your college years. Of course, the effect that this will have on your experience depends on your ability to use the flexibility to your advantage.
KEEP IN MIND: A major factor that influences life outcomes is resourcefulness: your ability to research, seek out, and discern between opportunities that are available to you. Many people don't consider potential opportunities other than immediately visible ones. A little bit of imagination can go a long way toward improving your life.
Some ways in which colleges differ in the flexibility that they offer are:
Some colleges have more required courses than others. For example, Brown University is known for its "open curriculum," and has very few requirements:
In 1850, Brown's fourth president, Francis Wayland, argued that students should have greater freedom in pursuing a higher education, so that each would be able to "study what he chose, all that he chose, and nothing but what he chose." A century later, this vision became the basis for a new approach to general education at Brown: the open curriculum. Rather than defining a broad set of distribution requirements, the open curriculum gives students the freedom to choose for themselves.
By way of contrast, University of Chicago is known for its "Core curriculum," and has many required courses:
This famed Core curriculum, a model for American general education, is the University of Chicago student’s introduction to the tools of inquiry used in every discipline—science, mathematics, humanities, and social sciences. The goal is not just to transfer knowledge, but to raise fundamental questions and become familiar with the powerful ideas that shape our society. Not only does the curriculum provide the background for any major and for continuing study after graduation, it also provides a common experience for all students in the College. All students have taken the same sorts of classes and read the same kinds of texts, struggling and triumphing over the same sorts of ideas. This gives every student a common vocabulary of ideas and skills, no matter his or her background before coming to the College. [...] The Core takes about 1/3 of your time at the College, but could be less depending on AP/IB credit and placement testing.
We believe that all else being equal, it's better for self-directed and strategic students to attend colleges with fewer required courses rather than more required courses, and that the benefits of a "common vocabulary" that University of Chicago cites are probably overstated.
Some colleges that require many courses are excellent choices for a given person: the "core requirements" consideration should be weighed against other considerations.
Large colleges offer greater diversity than small colleges. See pros and cons of attending a large college for more information.
Do detailed research if you have a very strong and specific interest
Further information: college selection: deciding based on your intended major
In a given academic subject, colleges of the same general prestige level can vary substantially in quality. For example, George Mason University's economics department is stronger than economics departments at most colleges of a similar level of prestige.
If you're very passionate about a given field, to the point where you think that there's a very high probability of you studying it in college, you should do detailed research on which colleges are strongest in it. For example, you should ask several professors within the field about which colleges have the best departments.
KEEP IN MIND: Even people who are strongly interested in a given subject often change interests, especially early in life. You should give weight to the possibility that your interests will change substantially.
- College tuition varies enormously from college to college. For example, UC Berkeley charges $13k/year in tuition and Harvard charges $42k/year in tuition, so there's a $116k difference between the two over 4 years.
- Just because a college has higher tuition than another college doesn't mean that it'll be more expensive to attend, even when the difference in tuition is very large. For example, using the UC Berkeley and Harvard financial aid calculators we found that for somebody whose family makes less than $140k/year and that have $300k or less in savings, attending Harvard is cheaper than attending UC Berkeley. We strongly urge you to use the online financial aid calculators for the colleges that you might be interested in applying to to assess whether you'd be able to get enough financial aid to afford them before ruling them out as too expensive.
- Given two colleges of the same selectivity, with one more expensive than the other, we wouldn't expect there a difference in quality of instruction.
- There's a study giving evidence that going to a more costly college increases your expected future earnings (independently of the prestige of the college), with the effect possibly coming from making connections with peers of higher socioeconomic status.