Every spring, tens of thousands of American youngsters wait anxiously for the envelopes that will tell them whether they have succeeded or failed in their efforts to be admitted to one of the nation's relatively small number of elite colleges and universities.

Question: In the long run, will it really make that much difference to these youngsters' lives and careers whether they get into an elite institution - an Ivy League college - or are "forced" to attend one of the much larger number of ordinary, non-elite schools?The question may seem absurd to those who assume that the most prestigious schools are the ones that provide their students with the best education. But that assumption may be wrong; in fact, there's evidence that it is wrong.

This is the conclusion reached by Patrick Terenzini of Pennsylvania State University and Ernest Pascarella of the University of Illinois, who conducted a review of some 2,600 studies that attempted to assess colleges' impact on students.

Their findings, summarized in the current issue of "The Chronicle of Higher Education," are reported in a new book, "How College Affects Students," issued by Jossey-Bass of San Francisco, one of the most highly regarded publishers in the field of education research.

Here are some of their key observations:

- "Non-elite institutions may compete quite successfully in educationally significant areas with their sister institutions that are substantially more prominent and resource-rich."

- "Our conventional notions of quality may not only be misleading but pernicious, implying differential educational outcomes and benefits and producing a false institutional status structure. Such notions do a disservice to non-elite institutions and particularly to high school students and their parents who are trying to choose a college."

- "Traditional and publicly accepted indicators of college quality - big libraries, selectivity of student body, educational resources - tell us little about the quality and impact of the undergraduate education a student receives."

Their basic conclusion: "There is no benefit from attending an elite institution."

But how can this be? Surely, graduates of elite schools, as a group, outperform those from non-elite schools on tests such as the Graduate Record Examination. Yes, but this in itself tells us little, since they also do better on exams such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, which are taken before any of the students even go to college.

The real issue is how much improvement is made in students' educational attainments during the years between initial admission and eventual graduation. In this regard, the evidence indicates that non-elite schools do at least as good a job as elite schools. And, one might add, for a lot less money, too.

Which leads to a related issue: Even if we set aside strictly educational gains, don't elite schools, with the prestige they confer and the contacts they provide, make a big difference in their students' earning capacities after graduation?

Well, it turns out that's not the case, once you hold constant the really relevant factors, such as students' pre-collegiate academic preparation and their parents' socioeconomic status.

Of course, none of this is going to deter many students from thinking they need to attend the most prestigious school that will have them, and those accepted to elite institutions certainly have my best wishes.

But the others ought to take heart from the findings by Terenzini and Pascarella, who observe the value of the college experience "is not simply a result of what college does to or for a student, but rather the extent to which a student exploits the people, facilities, programs and experiences made available by college."