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. But, inevitably, almost every student will end up with at least one or two rejection letters in their pile of responses. For instance, out of a total of 44,481 regular decision applications in 2021, Duke admitted only 1,907 regular decision applicants and 107 Early Decision defers to the Class of 2025
Don’t let the disappointment crush you. Whether you are not accepted into your first-choice school or 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 tiny grain of truth to this, the reality is that whether you go to college and what you make of the experience is far more critical than the actual school you attend.
Whether your degree is from one of the Ivy League schools like 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 institutions are stingy with financial aid, but almost all have high price tags. The total cost of attendance at most of the country’s top 10% of schools is well over $60,000 per year – so college is expensive. While many colleges award generous financial aid, that’s not the case across the board.
Although there are some benefits to attending a more expensive, competitive school, it may make sense for you and other students to attend community college first or a more affordable one altogether if the money’s tight.
There are many factors to consider when you’re planning on attending 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.
Suppose you’re a nontraditional student strapped for money or time. In that case, 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 ensure it yields a positive return. If you rack up student debt, you want to ensure 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. So you stand to lose more by not enrolling in a school with at least a little street cred!
If you’re undecided about your major or 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 you want to do with the rest of your life.
Once again, it would help if you looked 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 a cushy, six-figure job, it will be more challenging 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 think about whether or not they will be worth it for you. Don’t operate under the assumption that college is always a significant investment, no matter the cost. Instead, 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 selective colleges. In a perfect world, you would have the finances and test scores to attend any university, whether it is an ivy or state school. But, as you know, most individuals have a situation far from idyllic.
However, the name recognition of education at Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, or MIT can’t be overlooked. Some employers want to see candidates who went to a competitive school – this makes their job easier. They don’t have to work as hard to vet potential candidates for a position because the admissions officers at that prestigious university already did it for them!
Some elite schools are known as “feeder schools” for specific 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 improve at elite universities since a good college 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 where it doesn’t 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.
It would be best if you also considered 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 four years course. The pressure to succeed here and stand out from the entire student body 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. Instead, they’d rather see someone with hands-on experience, solid work-related achievements, excellent communication skills, and the ability to work well with others. So making sure you have a rounded resume and plenty of quality references will get you much farther than the name of top schools 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 – many people have asked whether it truly matters where you enroll to go to college.
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 those at public universities.
At face value, this might make it seem like a college’s “brand name” has everything to do with increasing mobility upward for minorities. However, it’s essential to consider that the same study showed 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 link 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 to get ahead. Instead, take advantage of this knowledge by doing everything you can to make yourself known on campus. Whether you attend Yale, Sonoma State, or other colleges, take the time to connect with faculty and 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 your options related to college and your finances before making the final decision on where to attend university.
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 will you pay those loans back? Avoid the most common pitfall many college students experience when they’re getting ready to attend – putting on blinders and signing away as they agree to be 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. Moreover, there are plenty of ways to reduce your college expenses, from buying used books to pursuing institutional or outside scholarships. So be creative and make sure you leave no stone unturned.
Questions to Ask Before Choosing a College
The high cost of college fees is not the only factor to consider when choosing the school to attend. It would help if you asked the following questions:
- How many students return after freshman year?
- What does the admissions process involve, and what are the chances of getting an acceptance letter?
- What is most important to me? Is it getting an Ivy League education with my limited resources and being stuck with college debts or graduating debt-free?
- What do I want my college experience to be like? Do I want to have fun while getting my degree or spend my time working part-time jobs to meet my expenses?
- Which majors interest me?
- What are the classes like? Are there small classes that require a lot of participation, and what is the class size?
- How did my college visit make me feel, and will I be happy here?
Your answer depends on the schools you are considering. Therefore, create a list of all the schools you applied to before writing down your response.
Does It Matter Where You Go to College? That’s Up To You
Ultimately, several other factors are much more important than where you went to college – most of which have to do with who you are as a person and student.
Your strength as a student will play the most significant role in your job-seeking success. For example, how much work do you put into your classes and extracurriculars? How hard do you work to find meaningful connections with professors, faculty staff, current students, and alumni while on campus? How many drives do you have, and what’s your major?
For most students, it doesn’t matter where you go to college – at least, not in terms of job success or earning potential. So when considering whether attending a more prestigious or 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 school’s name that drives your success but your willingness to learn.