Where you go to college does not matter
Updated: Aug 27, 2019
Welcome to the 2019-2020 school year! It’s August which means it’s time to head back to school despite the still perfect summer weather. Whatever happened to summer break lasting from Memorial Day to Labor Day? Anyway, you’ve already gone to Old Navy and Staples to get new clothes and back to school basics. Maybe you’re even looking fresh with some new Supreme gear. You definitely already threw away the syllabus the teacher gave you on day one; who cares what books we’re reading in Brit Lit this year, you’ve only got one thing on your mind - college applications. You’ve got big plans too - Ivy League or bust, baby!
So you want to go to Harvard? Stanford? Yale? Hell, even Vanderbilt? Well, while I certainly wish you the greatest of luck, I’m also here to burst your bubble, kid (and then follow it up with some good news). The top universities all share one thing in common - declining almost every single applicant year in and year out. Guess what Harvard and Stanford’s acceptance rates are. A whopping 4.5%. Yale: 7% and Vanderbilt: 11%.
Let’s put those percentages into real numbers real quick. We can stick with Harvard as our example. Last year, a record number of applicants (43,330 to be exact) went through the process of filling out an application, getting personalized letters of recommendation, writing college essays, and paying a $75 application fee (that’s over $3.2 million spent on applications alone). FORTY-THREE THOUSAND! That’s enough people to fill the Mets’ Citi Field, and still have about 2,000 people stuck tailgating in the parking lot. Of those 43,330 students who applied, only 1,950 were admitted. Now, I didn’t get into Harvard either, but I can do some basic math to figure out how many students were rejected - and that number comes out to 41,380. Just under two thousand students were accepted while just over forty-one thousand were denied. And this is Harvard which means there were tens of thousands of valedictorians and trust-fund babies denied admission. Unless your parents went there since legacy applications made up 36% of last year’s freshman class and are 45% more likely to be accepted. So, tell me, how do you like your chances to get in now?
Now that I have all this bad news out of the way though, it’s time to bring up the actual point of this article. Are you ready for it? Despite what your parents and college counselors are telling you, it doesn’t actually matter where you go to college! Now you may be asking yourself, “who is this moron telling me I’m not better off going to Harvard than Florida State?” That’s a valid question, but you don’t have to just take my word for it, you can take Time Magazine’s, or The Atlantic’s, or see this data from Pew Research, or CNN, or Psychology Today, or The Washington Post, or even this heavy paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Whether you look at average income over a lifetime, reported levels of happiness with their personal lives, or reported levels of happiness with their jobs, graduates of private and public universities are simply equal. Plus, public university students, on average, take out less loans.
So if there is little to no difference in life after college or the amount of money you’ll make, why is there such a premium on Ivy League education? The obsession with elite schools recently reached the point where some uber-wealthy parents decided that it was so important their child go to an “elite” college that they forked over as much $500,000 on bribes and cheating scams. A reported $6.5 million was spent on these bribes according to the FBI. Whatever happened to just funding a new building to get your already rich kid into school? Ah, the good ole days when elitism and nepotism were handled above board. And this doesn't count the millions of dollars spent on legitimate tutoring services for AP exams, SAT and ACT preparation, etc. One parent even discussed doing anything to get his child “into a school other than ASU.” ASU, mind you, has a to 10 fine arts program and a top 5 graduate business school - not to mention its nearly universal acclaim as one of the top party schools in the country. There is a certain amount of education that can be gained from that field as well.
There are largely two reasons why parents want their children to go to these types of schools. The first is they believe it will give them a leg up on finding a high paying job after college. But we already saw that average lifetime income barely differs between these two groups. And the Wall Street Journal asked the top job recruiters to list the 25 top schools they look for to hire straight out of college. Penn State, Texas A&M, and the University of Illinois were 1, 2, and 3. At number 18, Texas Tech finished ahead of both Notre Dame and USC.
The second reason people care so much about going to elite universities revolves entirely around the old adage “it’s not what you know, but who you know.” Many people assume all the most powerful people in the highest positions went to Ivy League schools. This just isn’t true! Bob Iger, CEO of Disney, went to Ithaca College. Warren Buffett transferred OUT OF an elite school, U Penn, to the University of Nebraska. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, went to Auburn University. The list goes on. Who you know does matter - but as well see in a minute, surrounding yourself with the right connections is more important than just being around rich and powerful connections. This obsession with “elite” schools is nothing other than an obsession with branding. Harvard is Nike and FSU or ASU is New Balance. Both shoes are rubber soles and cloth tops with some shoe laces. The only real difference is the little swoosh - and a few hundred dollars. Buying Nikes won’t make you faster, but working out every day in your New Balances will. College is similar - the brand doesn’t matter, but what you do with it does.
What matters more than where you go to school? Multiple things. First and foremost, if you already know what you want to study then applying to the schools with the top programs in that field should be far more important to you than just getting into a top “brand name” school. Say you want to be a sports journalist. Current or former ESPN writers John Anderson, Pat Forde, Michael Kim, Wright Thomson, and Matt Winer all share one thing in common - they went to the University of Missouri. In fact, sports writers around the country refer to the “Mizzou mafia” because of the number of alumni employed in every city’s sports-writing scene. There is even a Mizzou Mafia twitter that lists sports writing job openings and connects alumni to these opportunities. Again - it’s not what you know, but who you know. Surrounding yourself with the right connections is often more important than simply surrounding yourself with rich and powerful connections. The road to ESPN runs through Columbia, MO not Columbia University. There are a hell of a lot more Mizzou grads in the world than Harvard grads. Your boss is therefore more likely to be a Tiger than a Crimson (especially if you stay in Missouri for work); and he/she might even be more likely to hire a fellow Mizzou grad than a Harvard grad because he/she already knows something about you or sees a little of him/herself in you. So yeah, who you know matters, but not always in the super-elite Skull and Bones type of way.
Beyond a match of program and passion, the most important factor in post-college success is actually how much work you put into college while you’re there. I don’t just mean hours in the library (although that’s certainly important); college involvement includes being engaged in social activities, long term projects, internships, or a job that relates to your career choice. It also includes having a professor that you feel cares about you personally - in fact this may be one of the most important factors in post-college success.
Lastly, the stress from high school and college admissions is literally killing us. Teenagers are the most stressed out group of people in America and over 80% claim that stress is mostly related to school. Anxiety, depression, and suicide are at all time highs for teenagers now. As a high school teacher in private schools, I saw this firsthand. Students (and more so parents) cared solely about that A grade. What was learned in terms of content or life skills was inconsequential in comparison to that grade. I can’t count how many times I heard this statement from a parent: “my child needs an A.” Usually within a few days of that conversation I would hear something along the lines of “my mom/dad will kill me if I don’t get an A on this test/essay,” from the student. I watched nervous breakdowns occur over a B+. I saw parents directly undercut myself and their children by pushing outcomes over processes. Students never learned the benefits of failure and picking themselves up because they weren’t allowed to fail. Instead of growing from mistakes, they would become anxious or depressed. Test grades and college admissions should NEVER be a life or death situation.
I wanted to go to Notre Dame more than anything in the world. I went up to football games with my dad, just like he did with his dad. I cried every damn time I watched Rudy. I even wanted to go to Notre Dame so badly that I put seminary as my top program choice. I lied about wanting to become a priest because I thought it would help me get in. I didn’t. Instead I went to St. Louis University with every intention of transferring to ND after a semester or a year. However, once I got there, I got involved in a fraternity, and with the art museum on campus (art history major), and got close to a few of my art history professors. I fell in love with the place - and it changed my whole life path in a positive way. We had a campus in Madrid, Spain. So I got to go to Spain for a semester for no extra charge. This inspired a love of travel that I have to this day. I’ve been to around 30 countries and even lived in Indonesia for over a year as a teacher. I went on to teach at various high schools, got to live on the beach, and now have started my own company! It all worked out - and I can still cheer for Notre Dame on Saturdays in the fall.
Now all of this isn’t to say it’s okay to slack off this year in school. In fact, you should be getting involved and learning NOW because those habits are what will help you succeed once you get into college and out into the real world. If you dream of going to an elite school, then go for it! Just don’t put all your eggs in that basket and cause yourself more stress. You may not (statistically speaking, probably won’t) get in. But don’t stress. I didn’t get into my top tier dream school, and I couldn’t be happier today. The stress that comes from putting everything into getting into X university is much more damaging than not getting into that school - see our earlier anxiety/depression/suicide statistics. So to use a cliche, go ahead and reach for the moon (Ivy League), even if you miss you’ll still land among the stars (SEC schools).
But if you do want help getting your test scores up, improving your study skills, studying for any subjects you’re struggling with in school, or decreasing some of the stresses that come from school like test anxiety, you can follow this link to see the tutoring and test prep services that I offer.