Earlier this week the New York Times, in its famous Room for Debate section, posed an interesting question: Does It Matter Where You Go to College? Seven people weighted in, and all their responses were interesting but, looking at it again, I wonder if it really might just be the wrong question. Maybe it’s not so much whether or not it matters, but why students think it matters so much. It’s probably because at least fancy colleges offer safe investments.

The Times debate quickly turned into a familiar discussion about whether or not elite colleges are really the best choice for students.

“Entry level earnings are 45 percent higher for graduates of the most selective institutions compared with the least selective, and the wage gap may grow over time,” said the Century Foundation’s Richard Kahlenberg. Then again, “the best community colleges do a better job than the average elite research university at teaching freshman and sophomores,” pointed out frequent Monthly contributor Kevin Carey of Education Sector.

So it appears that the brand matters, even if the education itself at America’s major colleges isn’t dramatically better. Surely most Americans know this. It certainly matters a little where you go to college, though it probably doesn’t matter that much.

In the real world most people you meet, both professionally and socially, will have mostly gone to colleges that aren’t that impressive. In fact, if you live outside of a metropolitan area, most people will have attended colleges you’ve never even heard of, if they went at all.

That’s fine.

But kids seem want to go to fancy schools. This is not just the Ivy League and similar schools, it’s also America’s big-name state universities. Why is this? It’s not because high school students are snobs or elitists, or even because they’ve been hoodwinked by deceptive admissions counselors (though that probably doesn’t help); it’s actually because it’s hard for high school students to get any objective, comparable information about most schools. That’s the real problem.

People eager to burst the college prestige bubble often encourage students to look beyond things the college rankings of U.S. News & World Report. As the nonprofit Colleges That Change Lives explains:

We believe that the criteria most college bound students and their parents and counselors use, such as name and prestige, do not acknowledge the importance of understanding an individual student’s needs and how they “fit” with the mission and identity of an individual college community.

We support the goal of each student finding a college that develops a lifelong love of learning and provides the foundation for a successful and fulfilling life beyond college.

CTCL is in many ways an amazing organization, but this is bullshit. Students aren’t interested in brand-name colleges because they’re eager to find the magical perfect school that “provides the foundation for a successful and fulfilling life beyond college,” they’re just trying to avoid going to a bad school. Attending America’s most famous schools are the best way to steer clear of that problem.

But because we don’t have any real information about the outcomes of American colleges, any way to compare them, it’s actually hard to know if attending a relatively obscure college is a good idea.

Last year Princeton received 26,166 applications. This is for a freshman class of about 1,200.

The reason for this is that Michelle Obama went there. So did James Madison, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Jonathan Safran Foer. David Duchovny went there, along with Queen Noor and Ralph Nader. The school is steeped in enough history that people know what these colleges produce. It’s about the reputation of the school. Because reputation, and price, is all we have to go on.

Obscure colleges, in contrast, are a risky bet. Consider a college like nearby Felician College, also in New Jersey. Maybe that’s a really good school. Maybe it doesn’t a better job educating its students than Princeton. Maybe its graduates earn more money and carry less undergraduate debt.

But how would high school students know? That’s really why students are really so eager to go to elite schools. Because colleges cost so much money now, at least really elite schools offer a safe investment. Without really information, that’s all people have.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer