Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Penn vs Penn State

Like most people with young children, Mr. Jane and I spend a certain amount of time thinking about the cost of college (when we're not worrying about getting the kids through elementary school or, cringe at the thought, junior high). We're both first generation college students and went to a big state university. So, you can imagine my relief when I read an article in the Oct. 10th New Yorker that touches on the relative merits of paying for an Ivy League school. The complete article, by Malcolm Gladwell, "Getting In: The Social Logic of Ivy League Admissions," is on pages 80-86; this exceprt is on pages 83-84.

“As a hypothetical example, take the University of Pennsylvania and Penn State, which are two schools a lot of students choose between,” [Alan] Krueger says. “One is Ivy, one is a state school. Penn is much more highly selective. If you compare the students who go to those two schools, the ones who go to Penn have higher incomes. But let’s look at those who got into both types of schools, some of whom chose Penn and some of whom chose Penn State. Within that set it doesn’t seem to matter whether you go to the more selective school. Now you would think that the more ambitious student is the one who would choose to go to Penn, and the ones choosing to go to Penn State might be a little less confident in their abilities or have a little lower family income, and both of those factors would point to people doing worse later on. But they don’t.”

Kruger says there is one exception to this. Students from the very lowest economic strata do seem to benefit from going to an Ivy. For most students, though, the general rule seems to be that if you are a hardworking and intelligent person you’ll end up doing well regardless of where you went to school. You’ll make good contacts at Penn. But Penn State is big enough and diverse enough that you can make good contacts there, too. Having Penn on your resume opens doors. But if you were good enough to get into Penn you’re good enough that those doors will open for you anyway.

The full study:

Dale, Stacy Berg and Alan B. Krueger. "Estimating the Payoff to Attending a More Selective College: An Application of Selection on Observables and Unobservables." December, 1998.

is available as a 54 page pdf file here.

For discussion on the topic see this article from MSN Money and this one from the Chronicle of Higher Education.

One of the little Janes attended a week-long summer class at a Penn State campus and has declared intentions of going to college there. Mr. Jane and I are encouraging any attachment to any college, if only as a carrot to wave when it is time to write book reports ("if you don't finish it on time, you'll never get into Penn State..."), but we are also very aware that Penn State is far more in line with our budget than anything with ivy on it. And so, being proud state school alums ourselves, we are pleased to see that the student makes the college experience as much as the choice of college does.


Anonymous said...

Jane - I almost decided to go to Slippery Rock and I'm offended! (see the MSN article) After conquering a BA and MA and two completely different schools (one suburban and with over 12,000 students, one city with less than 3,000) 6 1/2 years have tought me that it's not always what you can get out of a school, but what you put in it. The smaller school I went to actually had a lot more chances for me to get involved and "network" via Internships & clubs than the big school, because of it's geographic location. Oh, so many choices that kids (and parents) have to make these days! At least you have more than a few years grace time until that day comes. Well, i've said my two cents, now i'm off to ruminate about the Avian Flu. Until next time, BipartisanBetty

AboveAvgJane said...


So nice to hear from you! Hope all is well. I agree that it's what you put into the school, more than the name of the school, that makes the difference.

Anonymous said...

Above Average Jane,

Just discovered your blog via Attytood...

I study and work at an Ivy League school, and happen to have old-fashioned ideals about the opportunities that higher education should provide (the development of a healthy critical faculty and a sense of civic engagement and responsibility as well as a professional springboard). And I wanted to throw in a couple of cents. I agree with BipartisanBetty -- the school isn't irrelevant -- its resources, setting, atmosphere, etc., are all of critical importance. But the name (and age and concomittant size of endowment, which are what define the Ivy League) of the school are of less relevance. Unfortunately, I see a trend among the so-called "elite" universities towards a kind "branding" -- wherein the name on one degree is supposed to be more valuable, but just because of the name, not because of the challenge and experience of earning it.

AboveAvgJane said...


Thanks for stopping by, and sorry for not responding sooner, I was retyping congressional testimony and kept dozing off.

I agree with you on branding. One factor in this, though, is that students and parents don't always know what to look for in a school, what kind of factors to review. People look at the US News list of best schools and go from there. I know people who say they are paying through the nose to send their kids to a "good" school. I ask what is good about it and they just say it is "better" than a state school, but can't articulate what makes it better.

You are right that branding takes the place of a critical eye by consumers.