Wake up daily to our latest coverage of business done better, directly in your inbox.


Get your weekly dose of analysis on rising corporate activism.


The best of solutions journalism in the sustainability space, published monthly.

Select Newsletter

By signing up you agree to our privacy policy. You can opt out anytime.

Jan Lee headshot

Study: Women Who Go to Top Colleges Earn Less Than Men Who Don't

By Jan Lee

The United States’ top universities have long been considered the brass ring for quality education. A degree from institutions like Harvard, Yale, Cornell or Brown is supposed to guarantee not only the best opportunities for learning, but also for earning potential.

That is, researchers say, if you are a man.

Researchers from the City University of New York compared the salaries of females who graduated from top-rated schools with those of male counterparts who graduated from both top- and lower-tier institutions. And they turned up some surprising results.

We normally assume that shelling out those higher college tuition fees would guarantee a bigger paycheck and more competitive opportunities, irrespective of one’s gender. But that isn’t necessarily the case, say Dirk Witteveen and Paul Attewell of CUNY.

The interviewers found that female graduates of “selective institutions” (those with the highest expectations for acceptance) earned about 16 percent less than their counterparts in the same tier of school. Even more surprising is that those same female graduates also earned less than male graduates of lower-tier schools.

“We find large earnings payoffs from attending a highly selective college both four and 10 years after graduation,” Witteveen and Attewell wrote. But those results are “uneven.” Not only do full-time working women earn substantially less than their male counterparts, but there is also a large disparity between employers as to how much a college major is paid in a given profession.

For the purposes of the study, the researchers looked at two different groups of college and university graduates.  All of the subjects were out of school for a maximum of 10 years. The first group of 3,480 individuals obtained their bachelor’s degrees in 1992 or 1993 and were interviewed a decade later. The second group (4,670 graduates) attained their degrees in 2007 or 2008, and were interviewed four years later. The researchers found that, on average, women who graduated from top-tier universities in 1992 or 1993 earned $62,210 a year, while men who attained their degrees from lower-tier schools in 2007-2008 earned an average of $63,923.

Of course salaries are supposed to go up across the- board over time, so it would seem reasonable that an employee who graduated in 2007-2008 would earn more than his female counterpart of 15 or 16 years earlier. Except that women who graduated from top-two tiers of schools in 2007-2008 reported a much lower salary than their predecessors: $52,293, while men who graduated from lower-tier schools during that same time reported an average salary of $55,346.

The authors suggest some interesting theories for why women still see disproportionate pay scales, even when presenting the best resumes and educational backgrounds. One is the way employers access new graduates, which include the social networks set up by colleges and may often favor male competitors. And as other studies have found, savvy employers aren't afraid to peer into an applicant's social media to get a peek at the professional (and extracurricular) interests of the potential hire.

And for those parts of the tech industry that women are still struggling to break into, old-school conventions of “knowing who you know” still make it hard for women to compete on the interview and negotiation stage.

While the reputation and excellence of an educational institution still matters, say the authors, the "large gender disadvantage in earnings for full-time employees is not overcome by attending a relatively more selective institution.”

Image credit: Flickr/m01229

Jan Lee headshot

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

Read more stories by Jan Lee