The recent college bribery scandal that ensnared celebrities and top names in business is sad for so many reasons, from the unfairness faced by students from less wealthy families, to the shame heaped on innocent kids thanks to their parents' terrible grasp of ethics, to what it says about all the other legal ways to bribe your way into a top college.

But there's one other less obvious reason the whole mess is completely heartbreaking: all that illegal maneuvering was for nothing. Science shows that a university's prestige has basically no effect on how much students learn or how they do after graduation. What matters? How well suited to the school you are and how motivated you are to study.

Fit matters way more than a brag-worthy name.  

As gross as the behavior of those involved in the scandal was, every parent can at least understand where it came from. Just like everyone else, these rich parents were anxious about their children's future career prospects, stability, and ultimately happiness. The way they handled it was just atrocious -- and also sadly completely ineffective.

As Jenny Anderson pointed out in a timely Quartz article this week, going to a top school doesn't actually help students learn more, get more out of their college experience, or be a happier more satisfied person after graduation. And this isn't just Anderson's opinion. It's backed up by a whole lot of research.

Last year experts at the Stanford Graduate School of Education waded through all the studies on the subject for a paper entitled "'Fit' Over Rankings: Why College Engagement Matters More Than Selectivity." Their bottom line conclusion: finding a school that matches your abilities and personality matters way more than an impressive name.

Why? For the unsurprising reason that motivation is super important for learning, and kids tend to be more motivated when they're at a school that's well suited to their interests, preferences, and abilities.

"Kids who studied the most learned the most; students who put the most effort put into coursework gained a better understanding of their subject and general knowledge; and the more engaged the kids were with coursework, the more curious and creative they became," Anderson writes, summing up the findings.

What about earnings?

Cynics out there might argue that the parents involved in the bribery scandal probably weren't motivated by curiosity and joy. They were probably motivated by a desire for their kids to be rich like them. Is going to a top school a good way to make sure you're kids end up wealthy?

If you're willing to put aside the very important caveat that science shows, beyond the point of comfort, wealth doesn't make us happy, then yes, going to a prestigious university will moderately increase your chance of making a bucket load of money. But again, only if a student actually has the academic chops and motivation to make the most of the likes of Stanford or Yale.

"While data suggest there are modest financial benefits to attending a 'top-ranked' school, the biggest disparities in earnings are seen among graduates from the same institution, whether it's considered selective or not," reports the Stanford Graduate School of Education release of the findings.

In other words, attending a school you're academically and personally ill suited for is a terrible idea, even if you're shallow enough to only care about future earnings. Doing well at your chosen school matters more than the name on your diploma. So worry about going to a place that will light you up as a person, not whether mom and dad have a top name to brag about.

Published on: Mar 14, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.