Does it matter where you go to college? The answer might surprise you.
Every fall, high school seniors send out their college applications with the hope of being accepted to their first-choice schools. Inevitably, almost every student will end up with at least one or two rejection letters in their pile of responses.
Don’t let the disappointment crush you. Whether you are simply not accepted into your first choice school or you can’t afford to attend the university of your dreams, don’t let fears of what the future might hold make things even harder to bear.
Many students and their parents assume that where they go to college will dramatically affect their employment prospects. While there is a small grain of truth to this, the reality is that whether you go to college and what you actually make of the experience is far more important than the actual school you attend.
Whether your degree is from Harvard or the less prestigious state university in your hometown, rest assured that where you go to college doesn’t matter quite as much as you think.
Here are a few things to keep in mind.
Consider Your Finances
Not all elite schools are stingy with the financial aid, but almost all of them have high price tags. In fact, the total cost of attendance at a majority of the country’s top 10% of schools is well over $60,000 per year – so yeah, college is expensive. While some award generous financial aid, that’s not the case across the board.
Although there are some benefits to attending a more expensive, competitive school, if money’s tight it may make more sense for you to attend community college first or to attend a more affordable college altogether.
There are many factors to consider when you’re planning on attending a college, but one of the most important ones should be the cost. Remember that the costs of attending university are staggering, and that an expensive degree doesn’t necessarily guarantee a lucrative future.
In fact, if you’re a nontraditional student who’s strapped for money or for time, you may be more successful by pursuing a degree that offers year-round enrollment, flexible schedules, and accelerated courses.
College is an investment in your future and, like any investment, you want to make sure it yields a positive return. If you’re going to rack up student debt, you want to make sure it will be worth it. This leads to the next point.
What Is Your Career Plan?
This might sound obvious, but it’s a fact that many prospective college students overlook – you need to consider your career plan before you commit to an expensive elite school.
For example, if you want to be a lawyer in New York City, you might want to be a bit more selective than you would if you were pursuing a general job in business. You stand to lose more by not enrolling in a school with at least a little bit of street cred!
If you’re undecided as to your major or your career plans, don’t invest the time, money, or energy in attending a super expensive university. When there’s no clear cut endgame in sight, there’s no sense shelling out thousands of dollars to get there. Instead, consider attending a community college, a state university, or even taking a year or two off to decide what it is you actually want to do with the rest of your life.
Once again, you should look at college as an investment. In the long-run, going to college should make you more money than it costs. Here are some numbers to consider:
The average student loan debt is around $30,000. While this may be manageable if you land yourself a cushy, six-figure job, it will be more difficult to manage if you land a typical job. The average starting salary of a college grad is around $50,000 and the average time it takes to pay off student loan debt is over 20 years.
This isn’t intended to scare you out of taking out student loans, but you should definitely think about whether or not they will be worth it for you. Don’t operate under the assumption that college is always a great investment no matter the cost. Focus on whether or not it is a good investment for you and consider your options.
Benefits Of Attending An Elite School
It can be argued that there are some benefits to attending an elite school. In a perfect world, you would have the finances and grades possible to attend any university you’d like. As you know, though, most individuals have a situation that is far from idyllic.
However, the name recognition of an education at Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, or MIT can’t be overlooked. There are some employers who want to see candidates who went to a competitive school – after all, this makes their job easier. They don’t have to work as hard to vet potential candidates for a position because the admissions department at that prestigious university already did it for them!
In fact, that’s why some elite schools are known as “feeder schools” for certain industries. The University of Pennsylvania, for example, is a top feeder school for leading finance companies like Goldman Sachs and Citigroup.
Your networking opportunities will likely be better at elite universities, since top schools will attract the world’s leading specialists and experts. However, there’s a caveat to this – which we’ll tell you about below.
When Elite Schools Don’t Make A Difference
There are a few other situations in which it doesn’t really make the most sense for you to attend an elite school.
For example, most undergraduates will be best served by choosing a less-expensive university, even if it comes with less name recognition. Elite schools often are home to the country’s top graduate schools, but don’t offer the highest-quality instruction for undergraduates. That’s because these schools are more focused on academic research at the graduate level.
You should also consider the individual fit. Going to an Ivy League school won’t get you very far if you’re miserable the entire time you’re working on your degree. The pressure to succeed here can be high, too – too high for some students to bear.
More often than not, employers don’t care what college bears its name on your diploma. They’d rather see someone with hands-on experience, solid work-related achievements, great communication skills, and the ability to work well with others. Making sure you have a rounded resume and plenty of quality references will get you much farther than the name of an elite college on that resume.
Make The Most Of Your College Experience
Over the last few decades – particularly in recent years, as studies and stories have questioned the value of a college education – lots of people have asked the question of whether it truly matters where you go to college.
In fact, a study conducted in 2017 by economist Raj Chetty discovered that low-income students at elite universities, like Columbia University, have a higher chance of reaching the top 1% of earners than do those at public universities.
At face value, this might make it seem like the “brand name” of a college has everything to do with increasing upward mobility for minorities. However, it’s important to consider the fact that the same study showed that there was little difference in upward mobility for the study’s white, higher-income participants.
So what gives?
The reality is that a college education is about more than just classroom instruction and a fancy stamped diploma. It’s also about alumni networks and connections. For students with no other connection to high-paying jobs and selective internships (in other words, for individuals without parents and other adults to connect them to dynamic industries), elite colleges can make all the difference.
That’s not to say that you need to attend an elite college in order to get ahead. Instead, take advantage of this knowledge by doing everything you can to make yourself known on campus. Whether you attend Yale or Sonoma State, take the time to connect with faculty and to pursue extracurriculars, internships, and campus employment. Your resume will thank you.
What makes a successful student isn’t necessarily one who attends a top school, but one who graduates from college in general. Therefore, you’ll want to consider all of your options as they relate to college and to your finances.
Sure, you can take out thousands of dollars in student loans to finance your education – but if the job you are pursuing after graduation only brings in $35,000 a year, how are you going to pay those loans back? Avoid the most common pitfall that many college students experience when they’re getting ready to attend – putting on blinders and signing away as they agree to being saddled with a lifetime of debt.
Do your research before you commit – it’s worth the extra time it might take.
On the flip side, remember that, just because money might be tight, an education at a more expensive or elite university might not be out of reach. There are plenty of ways you can reduce your college expenses, from buying used books to pursuing institutional or outside scholarships. Be creative and make sure you leave no stone unturned.
Does It Matter Where You Go to College? That’s Up To You
Ultimately, there are several factors that are much more important than where you went to college – and most of them have to do with who you are as a person and as a student.
Your strength as a student will play the biggest role in your job seeking success. How much work do you put into your studies and your extracurriculars? How hard do you work to seek meaningful connections with faculty and alumni while you’re on campus? How much drive do you have, and what’s your major?
For most students, it really doesn’t matter where you go to college – at least, not in terms of job success or earning potential. When you’re considering whether attending a more prestigious or more expensive school is worth it, think carefully about what kind of job you want and how much you stand to make at it.
Although a prestigious school may have once been considered the gateway to a successful future, that’s no longer the case. You can be successful at any college, and your credentials and work ethic will get you much farther than a name on a degree. Ultimately, it’s not the name of the school that drives your success, but your willingness to learn.