These economists are not telling you that you can get straight Cs in high school and magically improve your life just by mailing an application to Princeton. It means, rather, that actually getting into Princeton isn’t as critical as being the type of person who could get into Princeton. (They did find, however, that for low-income students, more-prestigious schools yielded higher earnings, which is another issue entirely.)
This finding isn’t just clarifying. It’s inspirational. It says that the college-admissions process, which millions of 18-year-olds consider the singular gateway of their young adulthood, is actually just one of thousands of gateways, the sum of which are far more important than any single one. While hundreds of thousands of 17- and 18-year-olds sit around worrying that a decision by a room of strangers is about to change their lives forever, the truer thing is that their lives have already been shaped decisively by the sum of their own past decisions—the habits developed, the friends made, and the challenges overcome. Where you go to college does matter, because it’s often an accurate measure of the person you’re becoming.
I think back 11 years to me, in April 2004, with no idea of where life was going but believing, with a kind of religious certainty, that any day now, my future was going to determined by an envelope. The letters came. Most of them were short. I was rejected by my first three choices for college. That April sucked. But within a year it was clear to me (and to other friends rejected from the Ivies) that our senior year was wasted in agony.