On the Importance of Where You Attend College
My cousin recently graduated from Stanford University, and there were many aspects of her college’s unique experience that she appreciated. She loved the school’s scenic campus, the sunny San Francisco Bay Area weather, and the opportunity to join one of the school’s hundreds of student organizations. Beyond that, over the course of her undergraduate studies, she’d gained a wealth of integral knowledge and, eventually, a shining college degree that would allow her to pursue graduate school. Still, upon graduating, she told me that her student experience at Stanford was not necessarily better than it could have been elsewhere. She felt she could have received the same fundamental education—the same degree with a different emblem—at any of the other universities she’d been accepted into four years earlier. This got me thinking: how would my cousin’s college success have been altered if she had attended a different university? What is unique about a Stanford undergraduate education that could not have been replicated at one of countless other schools? The truth is there are differences in every university, but the undergraduate educations they can provide—virtually the only part of a college experience that can be standardized—are almost all nearly equivalent. And a student’s potential for future success, contrary to what many assume, is not defined by his or her undergraduate alma mater’s score on the average ranking system. Thus, I argue that the specific college a student chooses to attend for undergraduate school in fact has little significance or, at the very least, much less significance than most of us are led to believe.
There are multiple possible reasons for attending college, but by far the most obvious is the education. Every year, students pay exorbitant sums and even enter debt to do so in order to finance their four-year undergraduate programs, and while the “college experience” of social independence is often enticing, it’s the extended academic advancement towards future career paths that makes it all worthwhile. “College graduates, on average, earned 56% more than high school grads in 2015, according to data compiled by the Economic Policy Institute,” (Rugaber). More recently, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released data stating that as of 2016, the median usual weekly earnings of those with bachelor’s degrees was nearly double that of those with only high school diplomas. Thus, students are eager to receive undergraduate educations in order to set themselves up to receive better jobs and better pay in the future and, along this mindset, turn to the colleges deemed “best” in the hopes of obtaining the best possible educations. However, the list of elite schools is a short one; most people generally consider it to consist of no more than twenty-five household name American colleges, all highly competitive. And while the assumption that unparalleled prestige should go hand-in-hand with unparalleled academic excellence is perfectly logical, in fact, many less prestigious universities may offer undergraduate educations of the same quality as those even of Ivy League schools. Lee S. Shulman, President of The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, states, “My view is that there is a very modest to zero correlation between general academic prestige and the quality of undergraduate experience available to students. The difference in faculty quality between institutions is much smaller than ever,” (qtd. in Archibold). This would indicate that the amount of esteem (or lack thereof) a university possesses relative to other institutions might better reflect its academic excellence in past decades than its current ability to educate students well. Gregg Easterbrook agrees, affirming that while just a few decades ago, only a handful of colleges offered truly first-rate educations, non-elite schools have since improved dramatically. “Pretty good schools of the past have gotten much better, while the great schools have remained more or less the same. The result is that numerous colleges have narrowed the gap with the elites.” Easterbrook goes on to suggest that this shift in the difference between top and bottom tier schools is in part due to the profusion of funding many less prestigious colleges have seen, saying, “Today many non-elite schools have significant financial resources: Emory has an endowment of $4.5 billion, Case Western an endowment of $1.4 billion, and even little Colby an endowment of $323 million—an amount that a few decades ago would have seemed unimaginable.” Extra resources have allowed a number of lower-ranked colleges to get a leg up to the academic platform on which elite schools stand, causing the lines between the educations provided by the top approximately two hundred American universities to blur to near nonexistence. So it would be remiss to suggest that the differences in education quality for these schools are anywhere near the sizes of their differences in reputation.
But perhaps that is the second reason many students hastily apply to the most prestigious institutions each year, rigid in their belief that attendance will be the key to their future success. The idea that the reputation of your undergraduate college will shape the rest of your life is rather pervasive, causing high school seniors to lean even more heavily towards elite universities in the hopes that the names stamped on their future bachelor’s degrees will open doors for them beyond graduation. In particular, this is often true of students planning to pursue master’s degrees after undergraduate studies. Students often imagine that when applying to graduate schools, admissions officers favor those who graduated from the most respected colleges, but this is generally not the case. “While undergraduates from Princeton, Stanford and other prestigious colleges are indeed overrepresented at the nation’s best graduate schools, their presence is not the result of the name on their diploma, but instead due to their achievement and experiences as undergraduates,” (Trivette). Ivy League graduates are often accepted into graduate schools due to their tendency to have impressive grades and test scores, but as one medical admissions officer states, “we don’t favor them over equally qualified candidates coming from less prestigious schools,” (qtd. in Trivette). David W. Breneman, University Professor in Economics of Education at the University of Virginia, even professes that for some students, attending less prestigious undergraduate colleges could even increase their chances of being accepted into graduate schools. “Performing at a high level in a good quality but not highly prestigious college may give a student a better chance of getting into graduate or professional school than being lost in the middle of the pack in a highly selective institution.” As Trivette aptly puts it, “Remember, where you attend college is not nearly as important as what you do while there.”
And this indifference towards the name on an applicant’s college degree is not exclusive to graduate schools. Even in the work force, employers place little importance on the prestige of a candidate’s undergraduate university when hiring. According to a survey conducted by IT staffing company Robert Half Technology in 2014 in which 270 chief information officers were interviewed, “Fifty-one percent of CIOs said they prioritize skills and experience over college degrees when making hiring decisions.” This would indicate that more than half of employers don’t care about applicants’ colleges at all in comparison to their tangible aptitudes. Thirty-two percent in turn said they put a little weight on a school’s prestige, while only ten percent said they put “a lot of weight” on this aspect of an applicant’s education. "When recruiting top talent, IT employers prioritize a candidate's ability to demonstrate the practical application of skills over education," says Deborah Bottineau, Senior Regional Manager of Robert Half Technology (qtd. in Robert Half Technology). Perhaps an even more revealing study was conducted by Gallup, also in 2014, comparing how important American adults think the school at which a job applicant received his or college degree is in the hiring process to how important a factor it actually is to employers. While eighty percent of the Americans polled said that school choice is either “very important” (thirty percent) or “somewhat important” (fifty percent) to hiring managers, just nine percent of business leaders said that where a job candidate earned his or her degree is “very important,” and thirty-seven percent said it is “somewhat important,” (Calderon and Sidhu). Thus, the importance employers assign to the specific place a job applicant received his or her college degree is drastically less than the general public assumes it to be, and school choice may in fact have very little to do with whether a job applicant is hired or not. “Getting a job and achieving long-term success in one's career may increasingly depend on demonstrating real value to employers through experience and targeted learning -- and increasingly less on degrees, even if they are from prestigious universities,” say the publishers of the study. Still, although a job applicant’s alma mater is disregarded by most employers, there remain those few that take it into consideration. Over the course of multiple decades after entering the work force, wouldn’t those with degrees from elite colleges rise to the top more quickly? In 1999, economists Stacy Dale and Alan B. Krueger published a study comparing the earnings of graduates of elite colleges with those of moderately selective schools, controlling for student aptitude, and found no significant difference in the earnings of the two groups twenty years after graduation. A larger follow-up study released in 2011 came to similar conclusions; “our estimates of the return to college selectivity fall substantially and are generally indistinguishable from zero,” (Dale and Krueger). It didn’t matter where students had gone to school; their earnings were the same regardless of the selectivity of the school they’d chosen to attend.
Despite all this, a student’s choice in undergraduate college is of course not entirely void of significance. By no means are education and career preparation the only possible reasons for attending undergraduate college, and things like maximizing future earnings or acceptance into graduate schools aren’t (and, dare I say, shouldn’t be) the sole considerations when choosing where to spend the next four years of your life. There are multiple other possible considerations to take into account when choosing an undergraduate college, many of which simply cannot be controlled across all universities. One such factor is location; where your college is located determines what specific summer internships and job opportunities will be physically available to you nearby, and some areas will have more of these opportunities than others. Cost is another obvious factor; although universities tend to be much more comparably affordable than comparably located, the range of college tuition prices is wide. “According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2017–2018 school year was $34,740 at private colleges, $9,970 for state residents at public colleges, and $25,620 for out-of-state residents attending public universities,” (College Data). Thus, colleges do vary drastically from this standpoint, and with crippling debt from student loans often extending well into middle age, it’s important to give this aspect some thought. Student atmospheres also differ between colleges, though peer relations can be a difficult factor to predict. “When you pick a college, it's a lot like picking a home. You need to like the environment you're in, enjoy the people around you, and be able to live there for the next few years of your life,” (Arnott). Even weather varies across institutions. Thus, it is true, to some degree, that your choice in college does matter; as stressful as it is for many nail-biting high school seniors to face, where you go to university will affect you.
But the conception that a student’s specific choice in undergraduate college will directly determine the rest of his or her life, particularly his or her professional life, is absurd. In our society today, so many of us are fixated on the names of the universities we spend the lifespans of gerbils at—maybe because college tuitions have become so expensive, and we’re all only striving to make every penny count. I believe that this is a noble cause and understand the sentiment, but all this mentality does is allow us to convince ourselves that somehow a student’s university has more say in her future than she does herself. And this is nothing but arrogance on the part of the college and underestimation of self on the part of the student. “[A] good student can get a good education almost anywhere,” (Kreuger). As simple a concept as it is, it can be surprisingly easy to forget. Yet Kreuger reminds students of the fact with his advice: “Recognize that your own motivation, ambition and talents will determine your success more than the college name on your diploma.”
I believe there is a time and a place for the thought: “I’d like to go to the best college so that it can give me a good education.” But perhaps the wiser mindset is this: “Wherever I go, I know that I can give myself a good education.” Maybe in the end, that’s all that really matters.
Kendall Millett is a co-founder of The Oxford Comma and one of its acting head writers. She is a teen homeschooler and a Gold Key regional Scholastic Art & Writing Awards recipient. She is based in the Bay Area.