Is the Cost of a Top College Worth It? It Depends

Is the cost of a Top College worth it? It Depends

A degree from a top university still holds allure for many, but with the average cost of college tuition jumping 179% over the past decade, it’s fair to question whether a bigger educational investment will pay off.

A four-year degree from a top-tier private university can set you back more than $200,000, while a degree from a public university costs on average less than half as much. One study found that elite college degrees can mean higher earning potential in fields like business and other liberal arts areas, but particularly for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) graduates, earnings after 10 years ended up about the same for those who went to an elite school and those who didn’t.

So does a prestigious education offer career opportunities that justify the cost? Indeed surveyed 500 senior and executive-level managers to learn whether a degree from a top college carries any weight in the hiring process and whether it predicts top performance on the job.

A degree from a top school opens doors during job search

Our survey results gave credence to the idea that a degree from a top college can create more opportunities for candidates in their job search — especially for people seeking entry and executive-level roles.

29% of managers say they prefer to only hire candidates from highly reputable institutions, and 48% say the institution a person graduated from is somewhat important in the hiring process. This suggests the higher sticker price on an elite education can distinguish a job seeker’s resume, helping them land an interview and get their foot in the door, perhaps ahead of a candidate with a more average educational pedigree.

Managers gravitate toward those with similar educational background

It turns out hiring managers have an unconscious bias toward candidates with education credentials that resemble their own. Of managers who went to a top school themselves, 37% said they like to only hire candidates from top colleges, compared with just 6% of managers who didn’t attend a top school.

The managers who didn’t go to a top school seem less concerned with prestigious degrees, with 41% saying that they look at candidates’ education but consider experience more important when making hiring decisions, compared with just 11% of managers who are top school graduates.

While not necessarily surprising, this tendency to seek out candidates like ourselves is just one more example of the ways hidden bias can cause managers to overlook top talent.

On the job, other factors predict top performance

Managers may place great importance on a prestigious education during the hiring process, but our survey found that a degree from a top college doesn’t actually predict high performance at work. Just 35% of managers agreed that top performers tend to come from top schools, ranking college name as the least important factor, after traits like strategic thinking, self-direction and working well with others.

Should you spend more for a top college?

It’s clear that elite degrees still catch some hiring managers’ eyes, but as more managers become aware of the unconscious biases influencing their hiring decisions, we could start to see less emphasis placed on college name and more efforts to hire for a diverse range of educational backgrounds.

For now, those who can afford to attend a top school could see greater opportunities open up to them as a result, especially at the entry and executive levels or in fields where studies have shown greater lifetime earning power for those with elite educations. STEM majors or those who can’t shell out the funds for a top school can rest assured that there are plenty of ways to distinguish themselves on the job that don’t require a prestigious degree.

To learn more about what sets top performers apart from the pack, download our latest research in the 2016 Talent Attraction Study: How Top Performers Search for Jobs.


Survey Methodology

Indeed surveyed 500 senior level and executive managers with a least four direct reports who have managed their team for a minimum of one year. Only managers who required a college degree for employment were included. Learn more about the study here.