There are obvious benefits to going to a highly selective university, like cachet, name recognition, and the possibility of accessing top teaching and research talent. There are also downsides, like cost, fit, and the pressure of being in a competitive environment.
As Malcom Gladwell discusses in his book David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, we have a tendency to compare ourselves to our peers, and for people at highly competitive schools that might be associated with driving down self confidence. This has led some researchers to conclude that really bright kids are dropping out of science, technology, and math programs at top schools -- not because of a lack of ability, but rather because of a feeling of inferiority.
On the other hand, there could be enormous benefits to honing your skills in a challenging environment. An illustrative example comes from the world of professional soccer, where being on an elite team can help not only a player but also his nation.
The fascinating example of professional soccer players on elite teams
In a National Bureau of Economic Research study, researchers Casey Ichniowski and Anne Preston tease out the performance effects of playing on a top professional team. The researchers looked at national team-level players who were recruited onto an elite league team (such as the Premier League in the U.K.) and analyzed performance changes over time. They also looked at how those changes affected each player's national team.
Ichniowski and Preston discovered that joining an elite squad has a marked influence on player ability. Goals per shot increased about 14% after joining, while scoring probability increased 18% when shot origins were taken into account. Elite players were not only better scorers, they became more likely to attempt difficult shots. Interestingly enough, there is also evidence that their national team teammates also become better.
As one interviewed American player said, "Every weekend, I was playing against the best competition. And playing against the best competition every week will force you to improve."
In other words, being challenged by an elite environment can foster remarkable growth. Could that mean that you're always better off in the most challenging environment available?
The pressures, and promises, of the elite team
Players interviewed by the study authors noted the growth opportunities of being in a high-performance environment. They emphasized the influence of playing "with and against" the best players in the world and having the mentorship and influence of top talent and coaches. "I saw right in front of me how it was done. They were mentors right in front of you to watch," said one player.
At the same time, such an environment -- whether elite soccer league or elite university -- is not without its pressures. As another player put it:
There is much more pressure in the better leagues. More pressure to perform in practice so you get a spot in the game. More pressure to perform in the game so you keep the spot. More pressure from the press. You constantly need to perform.
The players also cautioned, to paraphrase the study authors, that the rewards of an elite environment wouldn't benefit everyone equally. Phrases on the order of "your confidence can take a shot," "players could certainly struggle," and a disclaimer that elite play would be great for all players "as long as they were mentally strong enough" to withstand it pepper the interview responses.
In other words, there are huge gains to be made, but only if you can survive the high-pressure environment that comes with being in a top club.
The connection to college
The interviews underscore a key issue brought up in the Gladwell book: who succeeds and who drops out perhaps has less to do with raw skills and more to do with one's ability to manage the pressures of comparison. If a top-team player considered "average" by elite standards can improve his game considerably and gain accolades on his national team, he could certainly consider himself a success -- but he might not agree if he only compares his performance to Cristiano Ronaldo.
There is also the matter of pressure, as mentioned above. The word comes up repeatedly in the interview selections, and it implies that the ability to handle the magnified pressures of elite team membership is a prerequisite for survival and success.
You might conclude, then, that these skills -- a robust sense of self in a world populated by top talent and a capacity for managing pressure -- might be critical if you want to blossom in a challenging university setting. Lacking either could very well set you up for failure.
Finally, there is the notion of mentorship. Teams are inherently invested in their players, and coaches committed to getting the most out of those on their squads. Teammates, as one interviewee points out, are very competitive with each other, but one could imagine that there is still a great deal of investment in teamwork and mentorship -- a speculation that the interview responses bear out.
Whether a particular university can provide these opportunities for a particular student is up for grabs, and it is an issue well-worth investigating prior to making a decision.
While there is demonstrable upside to being on the best team possible, the study provides some evidence that success is still conditional on the player. Both the elite soccer team and the elite university might be good examples of a place where it is critical to "know thyself" first and make a decision second.
Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.