Some schools are defined as ‘elite’ institutions due to their strong alumni connections, intellectual climate, like-minded peers, funding, and professors with rich academic accomplishments. For these reasons, they are considered attractive to many families; however, the recent college admission scandal reveals a larger issue: is it appropriate to apply to a college based on its name?

The ‘Varsity Blues’ scandal details the efforts made by wealthy parents, athletic officials and coaches to influence elite college admissions decisions. Insurance executive Toby Macfarlane was the latest parent involved in the college admissions scandal sentenced. He paid multiple bribes to have his two children gain admission to USC and now faces 6 months in prison.

In a statement apologizing for his actions, Macfarlane said he knew what he did was wrong.

“I was feeling completely overwrought and all I could think of was not having to worry about my kids getting into college,” Macfarlane wrote in a letter to the judge.

The worry isn’t always about getting into any college, but rather getting into an elite one. All of the universities involved in the Varsity Blues scandal are top-tier schools. Nineteen of the 20 students involved in the scandal were admitted to schools that rank among the 25 top-performing universities in the country.

Elite schools draw in students from a variety of financial backgrounds. Some students from middle-class and lower-income families have an idea that children can come out of elite schools with golden tickets to a successful future. But the reality may be a large amount of student debt and a high drop-out rate. A 2018 study found that two-thirds of college students in the United States graduated with student loan debt, owing an average of $29,200.

“For some low-income students, college might be their way to middle-class status. The problem is the cost of tuition has increased substantially. If they’re not savvy, they might end up accumulating debt. This is very high stakes,” Tatiana Melguizo, associate professor in Higher Education from the Rossier School of Education at USC said.

“One way of doing it is taking advantage of institutions like community colleges that provide good education for the first two or three years at [a] very, very low price.”

But the name of the institution may not matter as much as the program a student chooses to attend. When choosing a college, Melguizo said that degree “major is critical.” Melguizo mentioned a study from the College Board that STEM majors have the highest return for student’s investment for their education. The study says, students that graduated with STEM and health-related majors received higher starting salaries than their peers who majored in other disciplines. The top three highest entry-level earning majors from 2013 to 2014 were computer science, physics and business analytics.

For some, a more costly institution can be a better option, not because of its name, but because they may be able to offer more financial support. Melguizo suggested that if a student comes with a relatively strong academic preparation from high school and is very motivated in the STEM or health fields, she would encourage these students to apply to elite institutions since they might end up getting more financial support.

“It's kind of ironic because you look at them [top universities] as the price tag of these institutions and it's very high,” Melguizo said. “At the same time, some of these institutions are so wealthy that they can provide really attractive for low-income first-generation and racial and ethnic minority students for them to attend college.”

But for some, what ultimately ends up mattering is the knowledge and experience a student gains during their time in higher education. “If you were studying to be a nurse, you know that content is important. You can not do the job unless you know the scientific method,” USC Rossier School of Education Professor Robert Massa said. “In the end, your performance in those areas will determine your success more than the name on your diploma.”

For students pursuing a degree outside of STEM, Massa said it is more important to focus on developing skills of critical inquiry. “Those skills will serve you well in whatever career you go into, but there’s not a linear relationship between a history major and what you’re going to do as a job,” Massa said.

According to Massa, research shows no connection between selectivity and the quality of undergraduate teaching. He said that there are hundreds of schools that prospective students may not have heard of that are good schools.

“Wherever you attend college, if you put in the effort, if the college or university has the resources to help you find your niche if you take advantage of those resources, you are going to be successful,” Massa added.