As those who have applied to college know, the work does not end when the acceptances roll in.

As your senior year of high school comes to a close, you have a difficult decision to make.

Although financial aid is a deciding factor for many applicants, schools’ prestige also influences where students enroll. For some students, the choice is clear: Go to the best school you get into. The allure of Georgetown’s name and the sway it may hold in your future career may outweigh the high price of your degree and the academic stress of attending a selective institution.

But is an elite education worthwhile? Or is it better to be a high-achieving student at a mid-level or less selective university — a big fish in a small pond?

Some students attend highly selective universities with the expectation that their degree will bring higher earnings than would an education from a less selective school. But this is not always the case. In fact, the schools you applied to, regardless of whether or not you get in, may more accurately predict how much money you will earn than the prestige of the school you attend.

A study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that students who applied to an elite school, even if they were not admitted, and had similar standardized testing scores or high school grade point averages to the average student at that school had similar earnings after graduation to students who ended up attending that elite school.

In other words, students who applied to elite colleges with the credentials to do so but attended less selective schools earned around the same as students who actually graduated from elite colleges.

So, differing financial aid packages aside, if you will accumulate the same amount of money over the course of your career after paying over $200,000 for a bachelor’s degree from Georgetown or less than $100,000 for in-state tuition at a less selective public university, the public school is the better choice, financially speaking. Being a big fish in a small pond may be worth your while — and your buck.

But there are other considerations to account for, like your major. According to The Wall Street Journal, a degree from a top-tier school results in higher earnings for business and liberal arts majors, but not for students who study science, technology, math or engineering. Employers in STEM-related fields may be more concerned that students learn the necessary skills for their careers rather than with where they learn these skills.

So while an English degree from Georgetown may be a wise investment, you may be better off attending a less expensive institution if you are a chemistry major.

However, for black and Latinx students, attending an elite university does result in higher earnings. The same is true for students in the bottom income quartile of those who attend college and students whose parents received fewer than 16 years of education.

Top-tier schools may offer the latter two groups connections and skills that their middle and high-income peers already have, which might explain why an elite education may be more valuable to these students.

But a college education is about more than how much money you earn with your degree. The quality of your college experience also matters when choosing a school. Being a big fish in a small pond can be a much different experience from being in the middle or at the bottom of an elite student body.

If you were one of the top students in your high school class, coming to Georgetown, where many of your peers are just as academically high-achieving as you, can be quite a shock. Falling from the top of the pack can take a toll on students, according to journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell.

Taking difficult classes with highly successful peers can quash students’ confidence and make them feel inadequate. Many Georgetown students are familiar with such academic pressure and discouragement. However, as a big fish in a small pond at a less selective university, high-achieving students may more readily excel academically, as they did in high school.

Yet all of us chose to attend Georgetown, which had a record-low acceptance rate of 15.4 percent last year and was ranked 20th on a list of 311 national universities by U.S. News and World Reports. An increasing number of qualified candidates are applying to elite colleges, which makes the institutions appear even more selective.

For some students, an elite college offers significant future benefits, or can simply provide the college experience they want. But before accepting an offer from a top school because of its reputation, one must weigh the benefits and costs of being a big fish in a small pond elsewhere.

Vera Mastrorilli is a junior in the College. TESTING TRUISMS appears online every other Tuesday.


  1. Mark McAdams says:

    I am struck by both the excellent topics and polish evinced by this columnist. Another thoughtful piece in a long line of good ones.

  2. John Supplitt says:

    I agree with Mark! I pursued a degree in an aggressive science curriculum and often have wondered where life may have taken me if I had attended another school. MD or not MD, that is the question. Upon reflection I would not have traded my 4 years on the Hill Top for an MD. The intangible far outweigh the degree and I am a better person for it. No regrets.

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