Begin with what "everyone knows" -- that a Harvard graduate will, by virtue of possessing a Harvard diploma, get better job offers, earn a higher salary, and become more of a success in life than a graduate of ACME University. But according to a landmark study published in 1999 by Princeton economist Alan Krueger and Mellon Foundation researcher Stacy Dale, the accepted wisdom has the facts completely backwards. Elite colleges don't make successful students -- successful students apply to elite colleges.
To dig down to the truth of the matter, Krueger and Dale collected admissions data from students who entered college in 1976 at a range of schools, both prestigious and less so, from all across the nation. Fast-forwarding 20 years, the researchers examined the salaries that these students were earning in 1996. They focused their study on two groups of students, both of which had applied to and been accepted by elite colleges. Students from the first group -- let's call them the "Ivies" -- accepted the offers, graduated, and entered the workforce carrying their Ivy League sheepskins. In contrast, the "non-Ivies" were also accepted, but turned the elite colleges' offers down and chose to enter more modest schools (with more modest price tags.)
Result: There was essentially no difference between the salaries earned by the two groups of students. To the contrary, the Ivy student who entered college with a 1,200 SAT in 1976 was, on average, earning about $1000 per year less than the non-Ivy student with the same SAT score. The same non-Ivy student who had turned the elite school down.
Conclusion: Smart kids tend to choose elite schools. But if kids are already smart, whether they choose to "go Ivy" or not makes no difference to their success later in life.