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Continued: College: Does a big name matter?

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA , Star Tribune
  • Last update: January 18, 2007 - 8:42 PM

That's what Greg DeMarco thinks, too. He's the dad of Cretin-Derham Hall senior Tommy DeMarco, who has the credentials to aim at a top-tier college. Tommy is near the top of his class, is an athlete, musician and actor, takes difficult classes and won a statewide award for accomplished high school students.

But he doesn't want to go to Harvard. Though he and his dad have talked about the advantages of an Ivy League education, Tommy is aiming at a less elite school. His dad is fine with that.

"Well-known and well-regarded schools give back a quality experience, and you get networking out of it," Greg DeMarco said. "There's value in that to a point, but after that it's social status ...

"I know all the hype ... [But] there's no end to the good schools. It's what feels good to him."

The power of a name

Research on the subject is mixed. Some studies have found that attending an elite school pays off in higher wages over a lifetime, while others say it's the background of students -- things like parental education and income -- that has lasting effects.

One of the most recent studies, by Jennie Brand, a visiting professor at the University of North Carolina, found that the elite schools didn't add much benefit when students were compared to peers with similar socioeconomic backgrounds who went to less selective colleges.

"I guess I was somewhat surprised ... that there wasn't some effect, even small," Brand said. "One of the most interesting results is that people with the most disadvantaged backgrounds seem to benefit most [from attending an elite school]. That seems to make sense, because other kids can draw on their advantaged social background."

But Brand wonders if her study, which was done on men who entered college in the late 1950s and charted their progress up to age 60, might have different results if done today.

"It's very possible that today, because of greater [college] selectivity and because jobs are more likely to depend on a higher education level, that the effects have grown," Brand said. "But that's just extrapolation."

Luna said she knows that Michigan and the U of M's Carlson School of Management offer a great education and that she'd be learning with "intellectual, brilliant people." But she's applied to schools like Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Duke as well. She can't shake the conviction she's had since childhood that schools like MIT and Harvard "are the best."

It's not just reputation. Part of it, she concedes, is "the mystique of what I don't know." And part of it is a feeling that the East Coast is a place where she could blossom, "a very powerful place where you meet a lot of people who can change the world," she said last summer.

In the end, enrollment limits at the most elite schools mean that even the brightest and most accomplished of students may be rejected. Harvard has fewer than 1,700 freshmen, while MIT enrolls only about 1,000 freshmen.

That means parents and students need to check their egos and realize that getting into Yale doesn't guarantee a successful and happy life, said Frank Sachs, head of college counseling at the Blake School in Minneapolis.

College is "a match to be made, not a prize to be won," he said. "There are any number of terrific schools out there. ... You don't have to focus only on the top 50."

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 • smetan@startribune.comFOURTH IN AN OCCASIONAL SERIES

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