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College cheating scandal: Why some American families go after elite schools

Do the nation's most selective universities guarantee economic returns or merely bragging rights?
Image: Ivy League schools
Daniel Fishel / for NBC News

America's most selective, prestigious universities tout their rigorous academic programs, top-tier faculty, lush campuses and world-class resources. But for some families, according to one professional college counselor, the choice comes down to logos.

"I think there's some snobbishness that comes into play here, and brand names carry a lot of weight," said McGreggor Crowley, a counselor with the New York-based service IvyWise and a former admissions officer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "I think it has a lot to do with the bumper sticker that families put on their cars, the pride they take in those emblems."

The college admissions bribery scheme now at the center of a sweeping federal case has revealed the lengths to which some parents allegedly went to get their children into elite educational institutions, including Yale University and Stanford University. It has also raised questions about the value of degrees from such schools, where admission rates are typically in the single digits.

The body of research around the economic value of elite degrees is not conclusive. A frequently cited analysis, published in 2014 by economists Stacy Dale and Alan Krueger, found that for graduates of highly selective schools long-term earnings are "indistinguishable from zero" after controlling for student characteristics, such as SAT scores. That is to say, a smart student tends to prosper professionally even if he or she did not go to Princeton University.

Dale and Krueger found exceptions, however: For black and Latino students, as well as students whose parents do not have an extensive education background, the potential economic returns were far greater. (Krueger, who served as a top adviser in two Democratic administrations, died last week at 58.)

"Those kinds of students get access to a professional and alumni network, and the social capital that derives from becoming part of that network," said Nathan J. Daun-Barnett, an education professor at the University of Buffalo who specializes in college access for underrepresented students.

And yet, many students from privileged families do not necessarily need a degree from a selective school to establish connections with top employers. That's why Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Daniel Golden is skeptical that future earnings or alumni networks drive high-income families to go after the Ivy League.

"For the kind of families we saw in the news, those kids are going to be financially secure no matter where they go to college," said Golden, author of "The Price of Admission," a book about inequities on the college application circuit.

"To me, the central motivator is largely tied to a desire to be in the club, to be on the inside, to make it," Golden said. "It's the ultimate level of status."

"America is a democracy, but we have elements of aristocracy, and these colleges epitomize that and help give students a ticket to the club," he added.

Madeline Levine, a clinical psychologist and the author of "The Price of Privilege," a book about the psychological costs of parental pressure on affluent children, agrees that elite universities effectively give parents "bragging rights."

But in researching a book about the future of labor, Levine has found signs that employers are not necessarily concerned with a job applicant's alma mater. She said some corporate recruiters have told her a degree from an exclusive school is less important than skills such as critical thinking and creativity.

Crowley, the IvyWise college counselor, said that some families are focused on admission to top-tier schools because they're the most ubiquitous and widely known, not necessarily because of a hunger for cultural cachet or social status.

"My biggest hurdle is all my families come to me and say, 'We love Stanford. We love Harvard.' Well, they're not going to admit every child, so I work to expand their knowledge base," Crowley said, adding that he points some families toward lesser known but academically solid liberal arts colleges.

Crowley also acknowledged that it can be "very helpful to go to a school that has a lot of resources," such as a wide-reaching alumni network. But, he added, the value of robust alumni networks is difficult to quantify and not unique to the most selective schools.

To Levine, some families' apparent fixation on chasing big-league admissions points to a broader social malaise. Americans have grown more attached to brand names and "status-oriented organizations," she said.

"I think parents have lost so much sense of meaning in their own lives that the bumper sticker that says 'My child goes to Harvard' really says they're an awesome parent and a valuable person," Levine said.