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 Elite vs. Non-Elite Universities: Which Should you Choose?

Gaining entry to an elite university such as Harvard or Princeton in the U.S. or Oxford or Cambridge in the UK is undoubtedly a major achievement. Many of the top universities admit fewer than 7% of applicants (Jackson, 2017), making them extremely difficult to get into. But are they really that beneficial to gain a place at? Do Harvard graduates always have a clear advantage over people who attended lower ranking higher education universities? There are arguably both pros and cons to attending elite institutions.

The main advantage to elite universities is clearly their prestige. A degree attained at Oxford can be worth considerably more than exactly the same degree gained at a different university purely due to the reputation of the institution. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that all employers will jump at the chance of take on an Oxbridge graduate. According to CEO of the Association of Graduate Recruiters Stephen Isherwood, companies regularly reject candidates who have attended elite universities in spite of where they studied. “Talk to any recruiter and they’ll tell you that they’ve turned down a fair number of Oxbridge candidates – just because you’ve been there it doesn’t mean you can walk through the door,” (Isherwood, as cited in Ratcliffe, 2013) he says. Some employers might even view those who have been to an elite university as snobbish and over-privileged, which could count against them.

It is also notable that many elite universities do not offer applied degrees. These courses involve teaching students the practical skills that are required to carry out a job. There is evidence that many companies now value work experience over attending an Ivy League or Russell Group university, the latter representing 24 of the top British universities (Garner, 2015). With this in mind, a lack of knowledge of how to actually conduct the work involved in a job is a major disadvantage.

It is arguable that many elite universities do not offer a substantial advantage in terms of helping attendees to gain employment. They might enhance the likelihood of finding a high-paying job, but Oxbridge graduates overall employment rates are below those of many other universities. Oxford does not feature in the top 20 universities with the highest rate of employed graduates. Cambridge is number 20, falling behind numerous other far less prestigious institutions (Harris, 2013).

On the positive side, a substantial perk of studying at an elite university is that it is likely to be attended by students who go on to be influential figures. Almost one in five U.S. senators went to an Ivy League university (Blake, 2015) and a similar proportion of British politicians were educated at either Oxford or Cambridge (Perraudin, 2015). Rubbing shoulders with the people who will be running the country at some point in the future is undoubtedly advantageous in terms of its affect upon the networking potential of the students at these universities. It provides them with a wealth of useful connections to make use of.

However, there’s a reason people from high society often study at elite institutions; they can afford to pay the substantial university fees. Others might find that the cost of attending Oxford or Cambridge places too much of a financial burden upon their families, especially students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Both of these universities fall within the institutions with the 30% highest cost of living, and Oxford falls within the top 6% (Pilgrim, 2016; Universities UK, 2016). It is arguable that they are undemocratic in that clever but poor students might be unable to attend due to the expenses involved.

The question is, does the additional cost associated with attending elite universities actually pay off in the end? Is there enough of a return on investment to make it worthwhile? Sociologist Scott Thomas studied the payoff of attending prestigious universities in the U.S. and concluded that it is not actually always beneficial. He found that graduates who study a practical subject like engineering or business with a look to entering the job market immediately after they finish university can actually sometimes be better off attending larger, less prestigious state universities, as these institutions tend to have large, passionate alumni bodies, which could be good for networking. Employers who went to the same universities might be more likely to take them on than someone who studied at an elite institution (Steinberg, 2010).

However, it is still true that on average, the median yearly income for Ivy League graduates who are a decade into their careers is over double that of graduates at other universities who have been working for the same length of time. The 10% highest earning Ivy League graduates earn an average of nearly three times more than the 10% highest earning graduates at other universities (Ingraham, 2015). This indicates that although there might be some exceptions, in general those who manage to pay the costs associated with these universities can expect a substantial long-term payoff.

A study in the UK has unearthed similar results. It indicated that graduates from Oxford and Cambridge can expect to earn an average of £10,000 more than those who attended other universities throughout the course of their lives. Russell Group university graduates can expect to earn £5,000 more per year more than the average university graduate (Weale, 2015). It is clear that there is a major financial incentive to attend elite British universities.

So does this mean that elite universities should be everybody’s main choice? Of course not, as money isn’t everything, and not everyone who attends them is going to improve their chance of earning a high income. There is no definitive answer to whether or not elite universities are better than their non-elite counterparts; it ultimately comes down to individual preference, and whether you’re willing to endure a major short-term financial burden for the chance of being a major earner in later life. It also comes down to your tolerance of inequality. Is it justifiable for you to attend an institution that others with similar talents might not be able to afford to study at? Only you can make that decision.


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Garner, R. (2015, 30 May). Leading employers prefer value work experience among graduates over grades, says new research. Independent. Retrieved from

Harris, S. (2013, 4 July). Graduates’ job prospects depend on where they went to university… and Oxbridge students don’t do as well as you’d think. Daily Mail. Retrieved from–Oxbridge-students-dont-youd-think.html

Ingraham, C. (2015, 14 September). This chart shows how much more Ivy League grads make than you. The Washington Post. Retrieved from

Jackson, A. (2017). Ivy League admission letters just went out — here are the acceptance rates for the class of 2021. Business Insider. Retrieved from

Perraudin, F. (2015, 5 February). Private school and Oxbridge educations over-represented among likely new MPs. The Guardian. Retrieved from

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Weale, S. (2015, 9 October). £10,000 extra a year – the reward of a degree from a top university. The Guardian. Retrieved from