Prestige is directly related to scarcity and the exotic. This is why a Harvard degree, a Maybach automobile and a vacation villa in St. Moritz are prestigious. It reflects a need for clubbishness and exclusivity, a way to divide the "us" from the "them" in a way that precludes the establishment of any steadfast standards. What it doesn't do is give any indication of ROI - I have met more mindbogglingly inept Harvard grads than I care to remember and the Maybach is an all-time loss leader for Mercedes. St. Moritz is kind of dull unless you're really into skiing.

I have no problem with the thirst for prestige, but it should be clearly separated from the idea of high quality. It may be highly prestigious to be a Kennedy or Rockefeller, but by no means does it indicate higher quality. Prestige is social currency in much the same way that a letter of introduction from the king was back in the 14th century. It granted you an audience and marked you as an important person who hobnobbed with the prominent and the  powerful. To my mind the only worth of a degree is ROI - will this degree or this institution get me to where I want to go? If not, it is worthless.

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If you want to make money in business - start a business.

Have you ever done it? Speaking from experience, I can say that most small business owners -- including myself -- are over-worked and unhappy, not to mention they blow their savings on high risk and low return.

If you want to make money in business, convince people with money that they need to have you around.

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Well -- isn't non-$ happiness more or less independent of where one goes to school? It's just about choosing to do things you like, taking a positive attitude, etc.

The money question is indeed valid, though. One wants to know ROI on a $100k investment. And it's totally reasonable to ask, "How can I get the good things in life to come to me?"

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Can you spell it out more explicitly, please?

Why should we listen to the working paper rather than the final version -- or exactly what dispersion does the WP cast on the final results?

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But scientist, college professor or teacher is more fun than being a salesman, accountant, manager, business executive etc. Also more of the well motivated high SAT people might go on to grad school.

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"This is an interesting topic, but I find it somewhat disturbing that salary is the only thing mentioned in regard to the prestige of a college."

This is an interesting topic, but I find it somewhat disturbing that prestige is the only thing mentioned in regard to the value of a college education.

it's further disturbing that the 'value' of the $200K expense for that private undersgrad education has nothing to do with books, learning or acquisition of critical thinking skills. Rather, we are told that the 'social networks' are invaluable differentiator.

If you want to make money in business - start a business. If you want to make money on wall street - go there. If you want to be an engineer - MIT will work but so will a state school for many. If you want the social networks, save the $200K and spend it on summer in the Hamptons and winters at Vail, and buy a Benz, for the 'prestige'.

If you want to LEARN and acquire the life of the mind and become a scholar ... well, $40K a year is a stiff price to pay and probably is not worth it.

The smartest comment was from the person going to the large state school. Yeah, with 40,000 undergrads, you'll find more genius students on that campus as in an elite school of a 1,000. The trick is to *find* them.

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It is too bad that there isn't a success meter that is valid. I went to a small public college, enjoyed it tremendously, became a teacher, still enjoy teaching. Became a parent, enjoy that tremendously. Soon I will retire. I wonder if I will enjoy that? Does this prove that a small public school makes a person more successful? Maybe it has more to do with the person. But, trying to figure it out keeps lots of "successful" people in business.

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Are the most exclusive colleges in the most expensive places to live? Perhaps there is a slightly higher probability of staying near one's college for one's career; and more expensive places tend to pay (professionals, anyway) a bit more.

($0.1million over the course of a career could probably be managed by a very slight difference in sorting 'coastal+Chicago' vs other places to live.)

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This is an interesting topic, but I find it somewhat disturbing that salary is the only thing mentioned in regard to the prestige of a college. This might be true for some degrees, and possibly all degrees. However, as a computer engineering undergrad in a non-prestigious college, I find that many companies in my industry do not bother do campus events at my college, despite being a large campus. These companies have obviously done their research, and there must be a reason that they consistently choose from specific universities before others. Additionally, a quick survey I performed recently on the founders of recent successful Internet startups showed that the founders tended to be graduates or drop outs of these prestigious universities. The longer I attend my college, the more I feel I am missing out on something better-- perhaps more opportunities or a better way of thinking.

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James, this is indeed a thoughtful relevant article.

Alexis, yes of course we value prestige itself; given my original reading of the paper I was going to post on it being nice clear evidence of this fact, but then messy facts intruded.

none, if I'm to refrain from citing anyone who has every said anything stupid, I'd just have to refrain from citing.

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I suspect high lifetime earnings are well-correlated to having a father who can write blog entries doing a survey of research into the effect of college on lifetime earnings

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somebody else: Robin clearly stated he first read the paper, and later on found HS & Study Hacks through web searches. Nor would he have figured it our "earlier" rather than "at all", because he hasn't yet acknowledged being wrong in his interpretation. Noumenon or none could have done what rfriel did by writing or linking to some actual criticism of Hanson's view on the paper and the former was even willing to grant the possibility that HS had the right interpretation in this instance.

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One thing I find very curious about this post, and all the ensuing comments, is that everyone seems to be treating "prestige" or "status" as having value only as a means to more concrete goods, such as money, education, or pleasant social and intellectual experiences. Then the temptation is to play a gotcha game, where we show that the prestige is over- or under-valued in terms of these other assets -- e.g., that an Ivy degree costs too much compared to a state degree, etc..

But who are we kidding? Surely prestige is valuable partly because people simply value prestige in and of itself -- even if that prestige is expensive in cash terms, and even if the prestige is not actually based on things it pretends to be based on (e.g., quality of education). Certainly an interest in prestige for the sake of prestige is not very high-minded, is maybe even a bit craven. But you can also see it as a virtue, a wholesome interest in what would be called "glory" by the ancients, or by the Adam Smith of *Moral Sentiments*. And anyway, a pure interest in prestige seems no worse than a pure interest in money.

To be happy we must act according to what we really want, rather than what we pretend to want. So I would advise your son to go to the most prestigious school he can afford. If he is normally constituted, he probably cares about what other people think. A lot. More than he realizes. And if he later discovers he truly does not care, then the high-prestige route still will not have cost him many other opportunities because of the secondary material value of the prestige.

Ironically, I would say the biggest downside of a high-prestige route is not the financial cost but the risk that it causes him to over-value prestige even further, corrupting his character and diminishing his soul. But most people who are corrupted in that way seem quite happy with themselves, so this concern is more a value judgment rather than a piece of advice about subjective welfare.

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TGGP, if Robin had actually read the paper in question instead of trusting the summary of someone who has already shown themselves to be pretty stupid, then he would have learned much earlier on that- no shock to anyone- the stupid person's summary of the paper is in fact wrong.

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Some criticisms of this interpretation are made by "Reader" and "Adam" over in the Marginal Revolution comments:


I haven't read the paper, so I can't personally judge the issue, but I thought the link might be interesting.

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