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Does It Matter Where You Go to College?


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Many students and parents believe that attending an elite university is a golden ticket to a prosperous future. And that belief isn’t entirely unfounded, as statistics continue to show the majority of the country’s highest-paid graduates attended highly selective universities.

However, many who dream of attending an elite school may never do so. Perhaps, despite a stellar academic record and maxed-out extracurricular schedule, their acceptance letter never comes. For the 2017 to 2018 academic year, 281,060 students applied to the nation’s eight Ivy League schools and, of these, less than 10% received offers.

Two of the most selective schools in the country, Harvard and Stanford, each have acceptance rates of roughly 5%, according to U. S. News. That means only 1 in 20 applicants is extended an admissions offer from these prestigious universities. Many other elite schools have similar acceptance rates.

For other applicants, perhaps that acceptance letter does arrive, but without a financial aid package that makes attendance possible. According to The Princeton Review’s 2018 College Hopes & Worries Survey, a majority of parents and students list their biggest concern as the “level of debt to pay for the degree,” followed closely by the fear that students “will get into [their] first-choice college, but won’t have sufficient funds/aid to attend.” These worries are hardly surprising considering the total cost of attendance at many elite schools can range from $60,000 to $70,000 per year.

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So, where does that leave students who will never attend a prestigious university? Are they doomed to make less than their counterparts who graduate from elite schools? Does it really matter where you go to school?

For most students, the answer is encouraging. Research consistently shows that, in the end, it may be the student, and not the school, that makes the most difference.

Benefits of Attending an Elite School

There are unquestionably some benefits to attending an elite university. The name recognition of a Harvard, Princeton, or Stanford degree carries with it a certain prestige that can act as a gatekeeper for employers. Some employers prefer candidates who went to a highly competitive school, believing the admissions department of a school like Harvard has already managed the selection process for them.

That’s why these schools are often called “feeder schools”; since some top employers trust the schools to make the selection for them, graduates are essentially “fed” to top firms. This is especially true in the highly competitive fields of business, law, and finance. For example, the Ivy League University of Pennsylvania is the primary feeder school for top finance companies like Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and Citigroup.

Networking opportunities are also much better at elite universities, as they often attract top experts and specialists for conferences and speeches, in addition to giving students the chance to network with highly successful and influential alumni. Some of the most powerful people in the world attended Ivy League and other elite schools, from U. S. Supreme Court justices to presidents, CEOs, and billionaire entrepreneurs. Many of these influential graduates remain connected to their schools, from donating endowments to looking favorably upon job applicants who graduated from their alma mater.

In addition, research from the U. S. Department of Education has shown that graduates of elite universities significantly out-earn graduates from other institutions.

So, depending on your chosen career field, you can get more than just an education at a top school; it can open up a whole new world of opportunity for you. But the emphasis here is on the word “can.” You aren’t necessarily doomed if you don’t get into your top-choice school or decide not to attend a prestigious university for reasons such as financial ability or cultural fit.

Other Factors That Determine Success

Focused Student Studying On Steps With Laptop

While top schools might give students a leg up, the best predictor of future success is, far and away, the students themselves.

1. Quality of Student

Although statistics may show higher overall earnings from graduates of elite universities, statistics can be misleading. Those who attend elite universities may already be primed to succeed. In other words, it may be that elite universities admit more of the type of student whose skills and preexisting networks already guarantee them success. A 2017 study sponsored by the IRS and U.S Treasury Department found that most elite schools enroll students primarily from families with incomes in the top 1%.

In a 2002 study, researchers Stacy Berg Dale of the Mellon Foundation and Alan B. Krueger of Princeton attempted to get around this problem by comparing only the earnings of students who applied to and were accepted by similar colleges, meaning the students they sampled were of comparable ability. This allowed them to attribute any difference in earnings to the colleges themselves and not to any particular skills and characteristics the students already possessed.

Unlike other researchers, who simply compared average salaries among schools’ graduates with no regard for the differences among students, Dale and Krueger discovered that when they controlled for the quality of students, the link between college selectivity and graduates’ future earnings disappeared. Students who attended a more selective college earned no more than students who were accepted by that same college but chose to attend a less selective school.

Dale and Berg redid their study a decade later, additionally controlling for the SAT scores of applicants as compared to the average SAT scores of students at the schools they applied to. They also utilized a larger sample size. This second study made an even more compelling discovery: Students who applied to elite schools and were rejected earned the same average salaries as those who attended elite schools, further proving that it really doesn’t matter where you go to college.

In other words, whether you choose to attend the University of Penn or Penn State University, your earning potential is the same. Your strength as a student, and not your school choice, is what determines your destiny.

2. Type of Major

Another, more recent study by Eric Eide and Mark Showalter of Brigham Young University and Michael Hilmer of San Diego State University came to a more complex conclusion: it might matter where you go to school, but only for certain majors.

This study found that for some majors, such as business and engineering, graduates of highly selective schools earn an average of 12% more than graduates of middle-tier schools. However, for graduates of many other majors, there was little difference in earnings. This may be because, as noted above, business majors at elite schools have access to better internship opportunities and networks than those at lower-tier schools. Some of the most common majors for graduates from Ivy League schools include finance and business.

Further, PayScale reports that across the board, schools focused on STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math) consistently graduate some of the highest earners. Though graduates of elite schools such as MIT and Caltech might make more on average than their peers who graduate from less-prestigious universities, continual growth in the tech field means higher earnings all around, no matter which school you attend.

3. Student Drive & Ambition

Statistics aren’t an indicator of destiny. There are plenty of success stories about graduates who didn’t attend prestigious schools – and as many stories of failure about those who did.

Consider, for example, that only a handful of Fortune 500 company CEOs got their degrees from elite schools. Randall Stephenson of AT&T graduated from the University of Central Oklahoma, Tim Cook of Apple is a graduate of Auburn University, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon went to the University of Arkansas, and John Mackey of Whole Foods studied at the University of Texas at Austin (and never finished).

And, even though more U. S. senators and representatives graduated from Harvard than from any other school, more than half of U.S. congressmen and congresswomen attended less-prestigious schools, including public state universities.

Even though elite universities tend to have the best networking scenes, you can get many of the opportunities these schools offer at other colleges; you just might have to work a little harder to find them. You may not instantly gain recognition as a student of an elite university, but you can complete internships, attend networking events, and volunteer to gain the type of job experience employers are truly looking for, anyway.

Reasons Not to Attend an Elite School

There are some good reasons not to attend an elite school, even if you’re accepted.

1. Quality of Instruction

While elite schools boast some of the nation’s top law and medical schools, they don’t always have the highest-quality instruction for undergraduates. The intense focus on academic research at these institutions, something that keeps them at the forefront of academia, results in professors who may be more interested in their personal projects than in teaching.

A student accepted into an Ivy League or similarly prestigious school might have a better learning experience at a smaller, though still highly selective, college that exclusively enrolls undergraduates since its professors are primarily there to teach.

Further, the 2017 National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) found that “there’s no guarantee” that selectivity or school size translates to a better student learning experience. Many less-selective universities ranked equally well among students for teaching quality. NSSE director Alexander McCormick concluded, “Conventional wisdom says that the more selective an institution is, the better it is going to be. That’s not systematically true.”

2. Individual Fit

Some students fall into the trap of thinking that because prestigious universities are the “best,” it must mean they’re the best for them, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. When deciding which college is right for you, you must consider whether a school is the best fit for your major, your wallet, and your happiness.

Personal happiness can be more important than some parents and students realized, as it can make or break not only a student’s college experience but also their likelihood of graduating. During my years teaching at a private four-year university, I’ve witnessed many students leave school for a variety of reasons, not the least of which were the unexpected workload and a bad cultural fit.

As difficult as it is to get into an elite university, the pressure of actually being a student there can be even worse. There’s an expectation that you must be the “best of the best” and a workload that goes along with it.

For any student applying to college, it’s worth considering every factor of your potential college experience, from the courses and cost to the location and social life.

Do Employers Really Care Where You Went to School?

College Students Diversity Happy Group Studies

Perhaps an even better measure of graduates’ potential earnings in the workplace is what employers themselves are looking for in job candidates. Here, too, research consistently shows that where you go to school matters far less than we tend to think.

For example, Glassdoor reports that a number of companies – particularly tech giants like Apple, Google, and IBM – don’t require a college degree at all, so they certainly don’t care where you went to school. Companies are more interested in hiring candidates whose experience and skills best suit them for the job.

Google, in particular, has spent years analyzing which employees succeed at their company and discovered it has little to do with where they got their degrees. When the company was small, Google focused on recruiting from schools like Harvard, Stanford, and MIT, but as it grew, it discovered this was the wrong strategy. Laszlo Bock, former Senior Vice President of People Operations at Google, told The New York Times that too many colleges “don’t deliver on what they promise. You generate a ton of debt, you don’t learn the most useful things for your life. It’s an extended adolescence.”

Moreover, when they looked at the data, Bock and his team found there was no relationship between where an employee went to school and how well they did their job. Academic performance – a key and coveted quality among students of elite institutions – may also have no relationship to job performance. Succeeding in academia isn’t always a sign of the ability to do a job. As Bock points out, “academic environments are artificial environments” that condition people to succeed in that environment, but only that environment.

Google isn’t alone in downgrading the importance of where an applicant got their degree. In a 2013 Gallup poll, more than 600 business leaders indicated that by far the most important hiring factor was a candidate’s knowledge of their field, closely followed by their applicable skills. Leaders ranked these factors as “very important” by 84% and 79%, respectively. Bottom on the list was where a candidate attended school, which only 9% ranked as “very important.” Even a candidate’s college major, at 28%, far outranked the importance of their school pedigree.

So, rather than focusing exclusively on attending an elite school, start by deciding on your major and then seek out the school with the best fit for your career goals.

When It Does Matter Where You Go to School

There is one situation in which attendance at an elite school can make all the difference. Dale and Krueger’s study showed a significant rise in earning potential for students of lower socio-economic status, as well as those of African-American and Hispanic backgrounds, who attend elite schools.

One possible explanation for this finding is that attendance at an elite school gives these students access to professional networks from which they would otherwise be excluded. As Dale and Krueger explain, while most students who apply to elite schools can rely on pre-established networks of family and friends for job opportunities, lower-income students don’t typically have access to the same kinds of networks and opportunities.

Unfortunately, many low-income, high-achieving students never apply to elite schools, a situation known as “undermatching.” A study by Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery found that while the majority of middle- and high-income high-achievers applied to elite schools, only 8% of low-income high-achievers did so, and 53% of those applied to only one school: a non-selective one.

These low application rates may be due in part to misinformation. Although highly selective schools, and Ivy League schools in particular, are seen as symbols of elitism because they attract students from wealthy families, their large endowments mean they’re able to offer some great financial aid packages to economically disadvantaged students. Many elite schools – including Princeton, Brown, Cornell, Columbia, Duke, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, MIT, and Dartmouth – offer either free tuition or a full ride (tuition plus room and board) for families with incomes below a certain amount.

Granted, prestigious universities could be doing more to attract these students, according to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce; many elite institutions continue to enroll students primarily from high-income families. But, for those students for whom attendance at an elite school can make a statistically significant difference, it’s worth knowing the opportunity exists.

Final Word

In the end, the answer to the question “Does it matter where you go to college?” may depend on who’s asking.

Research shows that for most students, it probably doesn’t matter, at least when it comes to future earning potential. However, for some majors and socio-economic backgrounds, there are good reasons to attend an elite school.

When deciding whether a school is worth the steep tuition, the key may be to consider what kind of job you want and how much money you stand to make at it. Most financial experts advise against borrowing more in student loans than you can reasonably expect to make your first year out of college; even a projected six-figure salary won’t go far toward the cost of a four-year degree at many elite institutions.

Though elite schools were once considered the gateway to a prosperous future, they’re losing this status as employers increasingly focus their hiring efforts on skills and experience. More often than not, it’s the real value you demonstrate to a future employer that sets you apart from the crowd, not a fancy degree. And because most studies continue to show significant differences in earning potential between college graduates and those with only a high school diploma, whether you go to college has more importance over your future employment options than where you go to college.

Ultimately, it’s not the school that determines your success, but you yourself – your level of drive, commitment, and willingness to learn.

Are you considering attending an elite university? If you graduated from a prestigious school, do you feel it was worth it?


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Sarah Graves, Ph.D. is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance, parenting, education, and creative entrepreneurship. She's also a college instructor of English and humanities. When not busy writing or teaching her students the proper use of a semicolon, you can find her hanging out with her awesome husband and adorable son watching way too many superhero movies.