The prevailing mantra being played out by many teens these days is, “Attend a top tier university or bust”. The perception is that where you go to college is the most important determinant for your future success. Charlotte, 18, recently told me that she’d consider it a failure if she weren’t admitted into her top choice, Yale. A whole cottage industry of college prep has sprung up around this concept, with specialized tutoring, camps, publications, consultants, and ACT/SAT prep classes. According to research, this Ivy League mythology is just that, a myth.

Frank Bruni, in his book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, cites research showing that the majority of American- born CEO’s of the top 100 Fortune 500 companies did not attend elite universities, and there was no pattern in where they went to school. The Platinum Study by Michael Lindsay studied 550 American leaders including 250 top CEO’s, and he found that over two-thirds graduated from non-elite schools. This finding is consistent whether you are talking about Pulitzer Prize winners or leaders in the fields of science and engineering. Many studies have documented that where you go to college has little predictive value for future earnings or levels of well-being.Does It Matter Where You Go To College?

We need to focus young people on a different model. Going to a prestigious college doesn’t make you successful; you must do that for yourself. It’s not where you go to college that matters, it’s how you go to college. What really matters are how well you use the university you go to and what you demand of it. Focus on using those years to come of age, bust out of your comfort zone and try new subjects and activities, reinvent yourself, create fresh outlooks on life, re-examine and question everything in your life, and draw strength and confidence from navigating new experiences and connecting with diverse people.

I discourage co-eds from just reproducing their high school experience with the same kinds of friends and activities. College is an opportunity to expand yourself in so many ways, so be open to change. Approach the whole college process with excitement vs. anxiety. Let go of the regimented, linear path to success that has been beaten into you since birth and instead create your own story. Trust the process of life, and most importantly, trust yourself.

Finally, why you are choosing a college is more important than where you end up. The American Freshman 2011 survey showed that 73% of college freshman had making more money as a very important goal, up from 42% in the 1960’s. My worry is that being driven by being accepted into an elite college turns into a pursuit of a prestigious job and getting rich. None of those things in and of themselves is wrong. But people driven by these externals end up less happy and fulfilled than those motivated by things like finding a purposeful career and making a difference.

Young people have been conditioned to overvalue things like popularity, fame, being rich, being special, being the best, and externals like praise, rewards and awards. In the end, what really matters is who you are, not what you have. The college experience should be more about making good people and citizens than making careers. Graduates should emerge as people who are original thinkers, problem-solvers, creative, and risk-takers. I’d recommend that students focus more on personal development and less on packaging themselves.

You can’t measure a high school student by their GPA or test scores, nor can you evaluate a college grad by what school they attended or their grades. What is harder to measure but far more important is a young adult’s level of grit, engagement, optimism, integrity, people skills, street smarts, stamina, and determination. If developing these qualities is our intention for people entering college, then we need to shift our focus starting in childhood.


105 thoughts on “Does it matter where you go to college? You might be surprised”

  1. Good article, basically correct.

    One qualifier: if you are a chemistry or physics major, and if you are very, very bright and highly motivated to do leading edge science, then attendance at a college or university where leading edge science is being done may be the right choice for you.

    1. Under grads don’t get any where near leading edge science at colleges. If leading edge science is really being done. My Grad Physics Prof told his kids he would pay for college ONLY if they went to teaching colleges, which are colleges that only teach, and don’t pretend to do “research” or what they pass off as research. He understood (as a prof at a research school) that it was more important for students to have profs that could engage with them and instruct them, rather than being isolated in their labs pursuing self enlightenment. Honestly not much at the undergrad level in physics has changed all that much …..oh…in what…the past 50 years? My GRAD electro-dynamics-statics book (yes that dreaded red book) was written by a guy who had been DEAD for 20 years and that was 15 years ago (or more).

      1. I did as an undergrad. If you are motivated and pushy, you can get into the projects that professors at the university are pursuing. It’s also true that the quality of your peers as well as the quality of your professors (as educators especially) matters: “Iron sharpens iron.”

      2. Bob,

        What you say may be true in physics, but in the biological sciences it is very different. Many undergrads participate in leading edge research, including work that ends up in the top-tier journals, all the time. Are they the lead authors on these papers? Of course not, but do they participate in the work, and presumably benefit from the experience? Yes.

        We just finished a round of admissions for the PhD program at my institution, and the proportion of applicants who have publications as an undergrad was quite high–around 60%.

      3. @Mark

        I am glad to hear that. You bring up an interesting question. Perhaps there is a metric here. Students who want to go to hard science colleges could look up what % of undergrads have at least one publication credit. That would be a great way to measure prof involvement with their students. And conversely those who don’t…..could avoid those schools.

        It very well may be that bio is different.

      4. As a former college professor, I agree. My daughter attended a smaller teaching university where I taught and had personal attention and classes of 25-30. She then transferred to the big research university and had her first class of 350. Her only personal interactions were with TAs. Oh, and the tuition went from $2,500/semester to $10,000/semester.

    2. I think the article still holds, you still choose the college by how you use it, so choosing Ivy League for those students makes sense.

      1. You can all go on and on about the relative advantage of an Ivy League or similar education, but the fact is that only a tiny percentage of all college bound students can get into those colleges. Why are we stressing out entire generations of students in this admissions arms race when only about 5-10% of all college students can get in to the “top tier?” Why not focus on what the author here is, which is the reality the vast majority of students WILL end up at non-selective or less prestigious universities, and since this is the case, encourage them that their lives are not over because they are headed for one of these schools but rather focus on the TRUTH, which is that they can succeed and have a fulfilling life without the Ivy League and its counterparts. College IS what you make of it. Sure, fancy schools have more money and resources, but I would argue that the kids who learn to navigate and extract value from a state university actually develop more grit, determination, and problem solving skills, which the workforce desperately needs. They have to be willing and able to tackle bureaucracy, deal with difficult people, be extremely persistent, take risks, and work smart. Graduates of state universities, where not everything is so easy, have the opportunity, if they take advantage of it, to be the best prepared for real life. And this is a good thing, since around close to 90% of students will be educated in this manner and not at the “top tier.” Instead, they should be encouraged to make their own top tier experience.

    3. I agree that if you are going into a special area of interest that of course you should find a college that has that field of study. But studies show that where you go to graduate school is more important than where yo attend college. I always tell young people your last place of education is the most important.

      1. Yes, if you are going to study physics then of course attend a school that has strength in that field.

        My comment was directed to the phrase “leading edge” and I’ll stand by my comment that under grads don’t get any where near “leading edge’, because, the profs conducting “leading edge” and their assistants don’t “waste” their time on undergrads. Indeed because the under grads don’t have the background to understand and quite frankly they will be gone in a year to two. Profs wait for the self selection process of grad students or more likely phd candidates before they “share”. Second you just need to look at the sheer volume of published papers to realize not much of what is published is “leading”.

        I realize I am diverting from the message of this post. But I do want to make a point and it does fit in with the purpose of this post. Don’t let your kids get wrapped up in chasing schools that perform their dream research area, to the disregard of going to a school to graduate from. Because they are going to be disappointed and chances are, waste a lot money. That’s a choice for the grad degree. Chances are where they go for grad work is largely going to be affected by where they are working and what their employer will pay for. Hard realities, but likely realities.

      2. I think it is also important to understand what a prestigious college is and what it means to be a selective college. Selectivity is based on meaningless criteria and created with the help of a ridiculous amount of marketing. As an a college coach I am always looking at what makes a good fit. Students are often surprised when I don’t automatically suggest an Ivy League School.

      3. Yes very true!! As I did choose a college not only because of the fairly good accreditations and it was open enrollment-it was the choosing of my degree and what would make me choose the right path for my career (yes it was far away) but that didn’t matter what matter is going into a field that I enjoyed and would make me become the best I could be!!

    4. I agree with Bob, my daughter is at a teaching college (Agnes Scott College) she gets in incredible amount of support and encouragement from the faculty as well as guidance as to where she can attain research experiences. She’s happy and working hard at her studies while tutoring.

      1. Guess you weren’t exposed to a quality research university that has the best of both worlds. At Syracuse grad and undergrad were involved in the recent and historic proving of Einstein’s theory of relativity. Watch this video

        List of members which include undergrad:

    5. Or you can just go to a local technical school and do the same thing like I did. I’m the senior chemist at Dow…I make more money than any other chemist at Dow. I did not go to a top tier university.

  2. I agree with the gist of your article, and always told my girls they were responsible for their own education, that it was possible to get a great education from a school with an average reputation and vice versa.
    But “co-eds”? I think it’s time to retire that word from your vocabulary.

    1. I agree that if you are going into a special area of interest that of course you should find a college that has that field of study. But studies show that where you go to graduate school is more important than where yo attend college. I always tell young people your last place of education is the most important.

  3. I totally agree with this article! I went to a very small state college and got a fabulous education! I look at many of my peers from high school and the prestigious universities they went to and don’t see a huge difference in success rate. Some, yes, are doing very well, but I would say that has more to do with their character than it does with the school they attended.

  4. I agree 100%. I have three children, my oldest decided to do a gap year in Israel after high school. While there, she met the love of her life, got married, became a dual citizen and started a life. All before the age of 21. She is now at a public university in Israel, working toward a BA and possibly an MA as well. My son who is graduating in June is considering a year in Israel as well, but this time at a university specializing in International Relations. My point is this: we need to make sure our children get the education that is right for them. All of my children will be successful (says their mother!), and will achieve their educational goals a bit differently.

  5. I agree with your article, what kids get out of school is based on what they put into it. My daughter did get accepted at Yale and is studying there now. It wasn’t even her first choice but after visiting the campus and speaking with students/instructors she decided it was a good fit. She is taking advantage of every opportunity available to her there. That is where I think there is a difference. I think that Ivy League schools like Yale can offer more programs and diverse opportunities due to the funding they receive. I attended Northern Illinois University and feel I received a very good education, but do see a real difference in the opportunities available to my daughter.

    1. Russ,
      My daughter will be attending NIU in the fall as a student athlete & a business major. As she is our first child to “leave the nest”, I am nervous about her choice. We live in CA and I don’t know much about the school / area other than what is on paper. She has always wanted to get out of her comfort zone & try something new & we will support her. However, as a parent, the “not knowing” is a little scary. Any input on NIU would be great! Sorry, to go off the rails here, guys, but I don’t get many opportunities to find out about this school. Tim, this artical did make me feel better, as we are allowing her to make her own choices!

    2. One factor I don’t hear talked about as much but is one way that the IVs and elites are a step ahead is the breath of the alumni network that exists. So looking at a school, whichever school it is, ask questions about what programs the alumni relations office runs and supports, not just what is their donor participation rate but their alumni volunteer participation rate. And how much interaction is there between students and the network of alumni. I see this as the real gold mine for many schools whether they be considered elite IV state small or otherwise.

      1. Agree with you! My daughter has had some great opportunities through alumni living in our community that she would not have had otherwise.
        Additionally, the Ivys or other top tier schools have larger endowments, allowing for more scholarships. Daughter was offered 4 times the scholarship than the leading state school

  6. Hi! I have been saying this my whole life. I went to a small undergraduate school very focused on engineering (Louisiana Tech, which was rated best university for the money last year) , did my PhD at the University of Arkansas, and postdoc at Cambridge. No one cared where I went to undergrad school. Tech helped me grow into the person I am today. After a career at Fortune 50 Companies leading multi billion dollar businesses, I am now CEO of a 500 person healthcare IT company. Tech prepared me for that. I have had lots of Ivy leaguers work for me in my career and frankly I was better prepared straight out of university because of the personal touch I got at Tech.

  7. I agree and I disagree. While I feel students should make the most of their college experience, they still have to be realistic. I had an amazing college experience, and did challenge my norms, studied abroad, grew as an individual, matured as a young adult, but had my plan made- chose a degree area which led to gainful employment, grit my teeth and barreled through. I worked hard, played hard. Let’s be honest- college is EXPENSIVE. Few students have the financial means to use their college credits as a means of exploration, and those that do often find themselves unable to find a job in their field. A bachelors degree is not what it once was, and doesn’t have a shiny, happy job that comes along with it. Add to that the generation of students entering and graduating from college… The millennial generation moreso needs a dose of reality than a romantic picture of self-exploration. It’s a challenging time. The education system is pumping out students who thrive in back and white, need study guides and “exactly what’s going to be on the test” and are unable to critically think or problem solve if the recipe is altered slightly from the textbook… However society is creating an entitled generation of young people that will struggle out there in the real world- where they have real responsibilities, where their bosses aren’t always fair, where their fluffy, interest-area degrees won’t lead to $80k jobs (or $30k, for that matter!)… Long story short– I’m at a loss.

    1. Couldn’t agree more. A student who attends college (any college – Ivy or State) – and has their hand held, by professors, advisors etc. – is missing out. On a recent college visit to Wash U in St. Louis, one of the student tour guides said “you can’t fail at Wash U – the professors and advisors pave the way for you – make sure you’re on target – act as a safety net”. While this sounds enticing to the 17 year old – at $70K per year, is this teaching reality? I’m afraid that when many of these students enter the real world – they will be stunned; probably move back in with their parents – and struggle to make it. Or – go back to grad school because that’s the only comfort they know. As a result, they’ll create more debt – and just repeat the cycle again.

      We need to produce self-starters – free thinkers and prepare our kids for life outside the cocoon we call college. We are doing this generation an injustice by continuing to hand-hold. This not only goes for our high schools and colleges, but for parents who never allow their children to face hardship of any kind.

  8. I disagree with the way you arrive at your conclusion. You are looking for pattern amongst CEOs and pulitizer prize winners…a statistically small percentage of the poplualtion to begin with. In order to get a good read on this, one would have to look at three key pieces of data:

    1) The percentage of graduates from a single institution that find a job in their field of study vs those that find a job outside their field of study vs those that cannot find jobs– 12-18 months out

    2) The median starting salary and title for entry-level graduates from specific majors and institutions vs 10 year alumni

    3) The percentage of graduates that have gone on for terminal or advanced degrees.

    The advantage to going to a top-tier school should not be taken for granted. F100 companies visit presitgious institutions to recruit for entry-level positions as well as offer funding for science and enginieering programs where a company can cherry-pick the top students in a program. the truth is that there is a huge chasm of opportunity between Cal Tech and Oakland Community College. Academic pedigree isnt the only factor, but it is an important one.

    1. Studies I have seen show the Ivy League salary advantage is essentially gone after 5 years. I can’t quote the study.

      But to your point, you do have a point. I have nieces/nephews with Ivy League and without. The Harvard B school grad says it bought her a seat at the table, …for six months. Don’t perform and they don’t care where you come from, you are gone. The non-Ivy’ers have taken a little longer to take off. But to my point, once you leave the ivy league, pretty much all colleges are the same. As long of course you don’t compare Oakland Community against a well respected State University.

      We’ve told our kids, you get into MIT we will make it work, after that, State U is fine.

      As my next door neighbors kid was crying when Dad said no to “where the hell is that?” University and insisted on UNH a good State U. She is now a med student.

    2. Jake, thanx for your comments. Here is an article from the Wall Street Journal that gives in of on where top companies go to recruit college grads.
      Here are a few of their findings:
      State universities have become the favorite of companies recruiting new hires because their big student populations and focus on teaching practical skills gives the companies more bang for their recruiting buck. Recruiters say graduates of top public universities are often among the most prepared and well-rounded academically, and companies have found they fit well into their corporate cultures and over time have the best track record in their firms.

      1. Ummm. Context is important Dr. Tim. That article is from September 2010. At that time we were in a brutal recession where 1) cost cutting, 2) getting more bang for the buck, and 3) streamlining recruiting effort drove hiring goals like never before (to paraphrase the first two sentences of the article you reference). And that meant looking to public universities for “cheaper” talent, and quantity over quality. The economy is better today. Is it ideal? No, but the market is up, unemployment is down by half, home values are on the rise, the U.S. auto industry is back on track, etc., … and that may reset the hiring game where recruiters once again seek out top-tier school graduates over less prominent school grads.

      2. As somebody experienced in recruiting the top students, I can add some insights. First, large universities have large numbers of students to screen. Some elite schools also have large numbers of grads in certain fields – MIT, Stanford, Berkeley (fits both categories,..). Others, like Princeton, Yale, Harvard, have large numbers of top students. But the strategy is to recruit where there are a large number of top students to interview.

        The change in the economy has had no impact on that strategy. If you see yourself working for Google or Apple, you had better graduate from a university where they show up to interview – or know somebody.

  9. My son knew at the young age of 9 yrs old that his passion and desire was in music. He attended what is considered an elite International Schools of Music located in Boston. It also was a six figure school per year. He left after 21/2 years of study and moved to Nashville to pursue his career. With nothing more than his percussion kit stuffed in the back of a 15yr. old hatchback, his bed, a laser focus and passion in finding work in his chosen career. What he didn’t take with him is the pressure from co-dependent parents, unrealistic goals and ten’s of thousands worth of student loans on his back. Fast forward a few years, he has realized that a piece of paper is not what is creating opportunities, it’s his discipline, drive, being prepared for auditions, perseverance, the ability to communicate effectively and leaving his ego behind.

  10. I’m 45 years old and some people tell me I need to quit college and just go to work then I can earn enough money to live I don’t want to do that I want to go to college to better myself so that’s what I’m going to do I graduated high school with a third grade reading level and a sixth grade math mathematical skills I think I can go to school and do what I need to be if the school can work with me then I can have a diploma in electrical engineering and have a good job and good benefits I don’t know what to do about my reading but I know this much right now if the school would have cared enough about me I wouldn’t to feel the way I did I was SLD all the way through school it is that going to stop me from going to college and bettering myself so I can have a good job and good benefits

  11. All true. But kids at elite colleges do get more opportunities and a leg up. My nieces are at Ivies and they and their friends are interning at some of the best companies in the world for outrageous amounts of money. Facebook, Google, Apple, Pixar, etc. aren’t sending recruiters to Duquesne University! (My alma mater).

    1. read Steve Friedman’s articles How to GeT a Job at Google parts 1 and 2, interesting what the head of recruiting for Google actually looks for.

  12. Thank you for a great article. My high achieving high school senior feels the pressure of attending a prestigious “name” school. However two of our local state colleges have given her substantial merit scholarship money. Why pay 20 or 30 thousand dollars more to attend a more selective school? An honors program at a state university with the right price tag seems like the best move for our family. Your post could not have come at a better time!

    1. Three of my children are professionals in the same field. Two attended a very selective state school, often referred to as one of the public ivies, and the third attended an Ivy. Their undergraduate performance was pretty much equivalent, good grades and a few professors who were enthusiastic supporters. The two state university students were accepted into professional schools rated in the top 20-25 while the Ivy student matriculated to the top rated professional school in the field. They all graduated cum laude from those schools. The job offers they received and their subsequent professional successes have been consistent with their prior trajectory. While their performance and commitment in their studies was similar, the benefits of an early Ivy education continue to pay dividends in professional satisfaction and salary.

      1. John F. Krotzer

        That is exactly my point (and some others as well)! Elite schools (whether Ivy or otherwise considered elite based on a specific field) will continue to open more doors for their graduates, be it in recruiting, grad school admissions, salary, etc.

        Thank you for adding this real-life example!

  13. Couldn’t agree more!!!!Amazing and true. I wish students could get into college based on their grades and who they are and not the scores of exams.SAT/ACT should not be a factor of getting in the schools. GREAT READ!!

  14. I would like to see how many business owners and the net worth of those in Ivy League versus non. The contacts you make with some of the most brilliant minds (as only those can get in) allow you opportunities in my opinion.
    Contacts are very important in life especially if you wish to be an entrepreneur – of course you must have grit, work ethic etc…, I’m saying if you hold all things constant.

  15. I would agree with a lot of these comments. One thing I would add, and forgive me if was mentioned and I missed it, is the connections that alumni and boosters from the bigger, more prestigious universities do have when it comes to jobs and placement after graduation. That being said, I do have 2 children in State schools.

    1. That’s the part I’m curious about myself. This article came at a great time as its a huge discussion in our household. I went to a State School andamcuriousto hear from Ivy League graduates.

      1. It’s an interesting discussion. I think the contacts you make from grad schools seem more impactful than from undergrad, supported by some research as well. I was impressed by the research noted in Bruni’s book about percentages of elite school grads in top jobs in fortune 100 and 500 companies and award winners and US presidents etc. There are so many ways to get to where yo want to go.

      2. Would love to see that research or a link. It makes sense. This article was forwarded to me from a good friend and had opened many household discussions.

        We are fortunate in that college expense will not be an issue as we have saved since birth. That’s a different blog under a financial area 🙂

  16. I teach high school AP Language and AP psychology and I have had this conversation with my students so much lately! The amount of debt some of my students and their parents are willing to take on for undergraduate education is ridiculous. I will be printing this off as a way to solidify my argument even more next week. Thank you!

  17. In my experience as a long-time mentor to college age youngsters, I see a larger issue beyond choosing the right college. Many youngsters, particularly girls, do not know who they really are. In many cases these youngsters sense of self has been shaped by “helicopter parents”, single parent households, Emmy award winning television, and of course the much maligned social media phenomenon. How does a youngster choose a path for life when all they know has been driven by outside influences? There is no point in pursuing expensive and elite universities when there is no sense of rational and realistic objectives. I believe the first thing a person must do is examine who they really are by mentally extracting themselves from outside influences and methodically examining their core personal values. This can be accomplished by carefully articulating their personal values (preferably in writing). With some success, I have used a survey model defining a person’s core values through the Five Human Equities. Sure, sometimes core values change over time. However, building a solid starting point coupled with a practice of periodic re-examination of those values can very often head off a youthful and sometimes a headlong dive into a misguided life plan….or perhaps avoid matriculation into an incompatible college or university. It’s just a thought, but I have seen the process actually work in real life.

  18. There seems to be a preference by Ivy League colleges for ulta rich Asian students who can donate a chair or a lab. However some very exceptional.Asian students with almost perfect SAT scores and are top athletes as well as award winners of all sorts have been rejected without even an interview. A few have moved on to positions of fame without the help of US colleges. Example is Jack Ma, founder of Alibaba who was rejected 10 times by Harvard and moved on to become one of the richest man in the world.

      1. Join the Army or Marines, Navy or Air Force – but first get a degree. Being a grunt is no education. Being an officer provides many more choices in the service and later. I know – I was a tanker grunt and came out a M/Sgt – funny no one cared.

  19. Realistically speaking … Send your child to the university with the best reputation and most merit award for the least out of pocket expense. If they make 80-100k right out of school, they will net ~45-60k and likely have $30k living expenses before the loan payment… Then if they marry or partner with someone with who also has an enormous debt to pay… In our dwindling middle class savings vehicles environment … What then?

  20. I don’t disagree with the general sense of this article. Going to college with a plan for what you want to do is important even if that plan changes. BUT… where you do go does matter. I always give my students several bits of advice:
    1. Make your terminal (last) degree from either the most prestigious college you can or from an institution that is highly ranked in that field of study. So once you get your Bachelor’s degree, nobody will ever ask you what your HS class rank was. Similarly, once you get your Master’s degree, nobody will ever care where you got your Bachelors. So a BA from Bobs College with a Masters from Yale is much better than the other way around.
    2. Pay for it as you go, and pay for it yourself. You will be a much better consumer if you do.
    3. Get your distribution classes done first because if you change programs because you found something different you will not lose everything and it exposes you to more diverse backgrounds on topics that you might find more interesting therefore prompting the change.
    4. Much more to tell but no more room.

    1. I really like your comment and it makes sense. As an owner of a couple small businesses I have found that I still ask Act scores if a person is personable. Maybe sheer luck but my employees with high Act scores have made my life easier if all other qualities are equal. I can’t hire graduates from a prestigious college as we are small.

    2. Great comments Dr. Tom. It’s all so individual, and I really want everyone to take a chill pill when it comes to the issue about where you attend college, or even if you have to go to college. We tend to lose sight of more important growing up pieces that will be more important in the long run, i.e. grit, optimism, self-efficacy, determination, problem solving, people skills, street smarts, etc.

      1. You should not be paying $100K and 4 years of your life to learn to work hard, be optimistic, streets smarts,… This list only is missing “critical thinking” to be a fairly complete sales pitch for a degree in liberal arts. All of those attributes can be learned by taking a job, while being paid. The cost of a higher education today demands more than what you claim, Dr, Tim. You had better developed some specific skills that are valuable enough to society that you can make a living using them.

  21. This article is being reposted like crazy on Facebook, and I feel like it is, to some degree, misleading.

    First, if you look for the CEO information online (i.e., you’ll see that the schools that produce the most CEO’s in the Fortune 100 are indeed mostly elite. It is also unclear to me whether a CEO that attended a non-elite undergraduate school but an elite MBA program (or vice versa) counts as being elite or non-elite. Forbes magazine did a study as well, finding “40% of Fortune 100 CEOs did an MBA, and 60% of them went to an elite school”.

    On top of this, why do we view being a CEO as a good measure of success? Many CEO’s are viewed like politicians – sleazy and power-hungry. Of course, not all, but I hardly view being CEO as the definition of success that everyone is after. It doesn’t apply to educators, public servants, small business owners, doctors/nurses, and most other professions.

    Finally, this article completely misses two very important components of a college education that are important contributors to success after graduation: the contacts you make at school (friends, etc.), and the strength of the alumni network. I attended two elite colleges (Univ. of Notre Dame undergrad, Dartmouth for my MBA), and my contacts from both schools and the strength of their alumni networks have benefitted me MUCH more than the actual knowledge I gained at either institution (most of which is now outdated). Those kinds of networks are MUCH more existant at elite colleges.

    Can a person be successful by going to a non-elite school? Absolutely! But as was stated by another reader, kids at elite colleges do get more opportunities and a leg up. That is a fact – and I believe will remain a fact – whether people want to admit it or not.

    1. Employers interview prospective employees at a limited number of universities. They choose those schools according to their experience in hiring successful employees in the past. So, another criterion for “elite” would be whether employers YOU can see yourself working for interview at the university you are considering attending. That would be a highly variable standard, and requires a clear set of goals at a freshman level.

  22. I don’t agree with all of it. It really does depend on the major. My daughter went to pharmacy school in Boston agains her parents better judgement; hoping she’d stay in AZ and go to the state school. Now that she’s graduated and I have done my research, I’m glad she didn’t listen to us. Not many want to hire from a state school vs. a private school, and she got more scholarship money at the private school as well.

  23. Unfortunately, there is a big demand for h.s. Students with high placement I the SAT/ACT TEST, HIGH % place in top 10% of class, list of AP classes taken in HS and all round achievement record on their resume being sent to colleges for acceptance. Many top colleges do not even give you a chance if you don’t qualify coming out of h.s. My grandson fortunately qualifies quite high in all phases of college acceptance criteria. He is in engineering and next semester starts to co-op. So, I do believe it is very important what college you attend, what classes you take and how strong your perseverance really is. He will go far as he realizes knowledge comes from many many places-most certainly not the long-neck brown bottle. I am very blessed to have my grandchildren rise above the norm!!

    1. I agree to a certain extent. My son was in Honors and AP classes and was accustomed to working diligently.
      He went to college equipped with good study skills. My daughter was a more average student but did well and college and still got a good job. It’s those students who think “top notch” or bust that I worry about.

  24. With the price of college always increasing and almost beyond the grasp of middle class families, I encourage my high school students to consider state colleges very carefully. Particularly where I live (Massachusets) , there is a college for everyone. Besides where you get your undergrad degree, it is how you present yourself when it is time for the all important interviews. Also many students fail to consider the debt they will incur and how difficult it will be to leave if they owe over $100k. If they have a major that is in demand (math, science, comp sci) they will have no trouble getting a job regardless of where the diploma is from. My daughter attended a state school as a Bio major and had a job within 2 months of graduation at a major pharmaceutical company. My son is also at a state school in math and comp/sci and have no doubt he will find a job. If you go to. an Ivy and get a degree with little practical use what kind of job can you expect to get ??

  25. Where you send your child seems to be a huge fixation of those living in the Northeast section of our country. Many times this fixation starts with high school & the quest to get your child in prestigious boarding schools. What I don’t find is that salaries or job opportunities are, overall, better for those who live in that area. Those who attend ivy leagues or expensive private schools could initially have great connections through alumni support that may not be offered to average or less than average students at state schools. However, this advantage is not a given and will be mitigated in years to come if their skill set is not competitive with that of their peers. Parental influence is more often than not the reason students decide on Ivy Leagues. If money is no object and connections or eventual marriages into your social set are your priorities, that may be the right decision for your child.

  26. From the industry hiring perspective, engineering and computer science students should consider getting their degrees from an ABET certified college. It makes a difference when being considered for many jobs in those fields.

  27. The author, who is apparently statistically ignorant, asserts that since only 1/3 of leading CEOs attended elite schools it makes no difference.

    Look at it from a rigorous analytical viewpoint, rather than wishful thinking. Suppose that 1% of college grads went elite schools, but that 33% of CEOs went to elite schools. The conclusion is that attending an elite school increases your probability of attaining that position by 33X.

    The reality is that employers (and graduate schools) selectively hire from elite schools. They hire (or offer grad school openings) there primarily because that is where the best students are. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy, but not one that a college freshman can influence.

    1. While I am guilty of being a parent who has thought that “Ivy is best”..that is the way I was brought up to believe… I agree with Dr. Tim and strongly disagree with RobS. “The best students” are not necessarily at the Ivys or like. If you only look at GPA and ACT/SAT scores, the kids-on-paper might be better test takers and spend more time studying because that is their make-up….or because they have performed as has been expected by their parents. However, a student , such as my daughter, who has attended a very competitive, high-performaing, dual-language high school, might be performance-based, interested in getting into the “doing” of life and interests, rather than booking it to get there. My daughter, who’s focus is business, applied to city and state schools and has been offered merit award. While her friends go off to Ivys and “name schools”, with the benefit of parents who can afford the cost of private colleges, my daughter possibly will be finding her passion and lasting relationships at a state school where she could excel academically and personally. She has stated that, if accepted, she would not want to go to the Ivys because of the attitudes of many of the kids and the undue pressure felt to compete. A CEO I know tells me that the Ivy kids might get a first look and get hired, but given a few short years to produce, her expereince has been that many of those kids actually do not have it to go the distance. She states that the kids from lesser known schools present as having the all-around people and work skills necessary to being more successful for the long term. The Ivys might open doors, but it is the individual that has to keep selling him or herselff in order to keep moving ahead. Bottom line: Students are going to be where they are supposed to be. From that point, it’s what they do with where they are that informs their future. As parents, this is what we should be focused on for our kids and not the 1% who, in the long run, are never really sure where they will end up when they are all grown up..

      1. Not “necessarily” true, I agree, Jane. But generally true. Even the most selective employers interview at a much wider range of schools than those identified as “Ivies”. But they are selective in the schools they focus on.

        Thee is a corollary to this discussion however – avoid misplacement. A student is far better off doing well in a lower tier school than scraping by (or dropping out ) at a more selective college. This issue of misplacement is a topic of concern for affirmative action students. However it should be of equal concern to students in general.

  28. My comment veers away from former regarding science and toward another realm of college education; Art. My daughter is an artistically talented and academicallly successful senior in a #1 public high school who’s chosen a future in Art, specifically Illustration and Graphic Design. Originally, we went to all the prestigious international New York City art schools and we were blown away. They were definitely the Mercedes of art schools. My daughter was excited with NYC and ready to apply. Her 4 years of high school studio art had completely prepared her for top tier NYC art schools. But, shortly after, some realities hit and my daughter felt she had to make a decision of a different kind. She unexpectedly needed to decide where she was most comfortable socially for the next 4 years of her life, as well as decide on the price tag that comes along with Pratt Institute, The New School and the School of Visual Arts. As amazing as these art schools are, my daughter needed to think about other things besides how prestigious a school is. Not to knock art schools (I am also an artist on the side), but my daughter is more mainstream. She’s a singer/musician and artist who also likes football games, clubs and enjoys associating with a variety of students with different aspirations and interests. At the prestigious NY art schools there are mostly artists; period. That’s wonderful if that’s what a student wants, to be around their own kind in mainly a homogenous population. My daughter wanted to be at a school that offered more diversity. Consequently, with disappointment, my daughter decided to let go of her dream of going to a prestigious NYC school where she feels she would have gotten the best training. But, actually more importantly, she is staying true to herself and heavily researched and applied to top mainstream Liberal Art universities that offer top art training in her field of interest. She wants to mix with all kinds of students with all kinds of backgrounds in an academicallly competitive institution with smart students who care about success. These universities are out there and my daughter will be an an exceptional artist mostly due to her sheer determination, motivation and passion. What’s really wonderful for my daughter or any art student at a top Liberal Art school, art professors there are required to be working artists just like the ones employed at prestigious NYC art schools. As a matter of fact, all of the Liberal Art schools on the east coast have connections with New York, so it’s a win/win! Basically, my daughter realized that she needed to attend a university that met more than just her vocational dream. She chose about her whole self and will have a wonderful college experience and future. A life lesson learned early.

  29. I love your point that we need to raise leaders focused on serving and making a difference in society, rather than chasing the almighty dollar.
    Secondly, the pursuit of money is not what fulfills us, but rather, following the path where our skills and abilities lie. Your encouragement to bust out of your comfort zone is a good reminder to all of us, no matter what stage of life we’re in, to keep from settling for the status quo.

  30. What seems to matter most to our kid is the ‘eyebrow level’ he gets when he tells other kids where he is going. First two public universities (both flagships in their states) that he was accepted into elicited no eyebrows. Acceptance to the big public university in the next state? Big eyebrow raises. Still waiting to hear from the home state’s public flagship school but, based on the ‘eyebrows’ he will be headed to where the eyebrows went the highest. It isn’t only parents who have expectations or notions of the ‘best’ schools.

    1. Then the adults need to step in. The schools are very good at marketing and it’s not right to expect a 17 year old to make decisions that could cost 100’s of thousands of dollars.

      I remember most of my friends had to just get as far away from the old home town as they could. I think I was the only who graduated 4 years later at the flagship State U. Many ended up transferring back to State U, others had to take time off for various reasons. All of this swirling around inside the rather still immature brain of a 17 year old.

      I walked through the “guidance” depart at the high school, all the beautiful school posters taken with aerial view with golden tones and storied buildings. Selling the dream, sell the image.

      What we are doing to our kids is a disgrace, “don’t worry we’ll let you borrow thousands to realize your dream”, to kids who chances are don’t have a credit card. Oh yes, the dream, attend here or your life is over.

      It’s a disgrace.

      1. What you have said is so vital and if more people don’t keep up dialogue like this then they are allowing institutions to destroy entire family monetary legacies. Our children will likely never have saving vehicles available to them that we and past generations have had. I don’t know anyone claiming that ethics of financial America are improving and we all had better protect our children from predators that lurk at the tune of $100-200k per student! How many of us paid that for our first house? Many in this generation will never see the end of debt unless we as parents get the hand that threatens to rob them to go far away.

  31. I agree with an earlier response that the last school attended should be most prestigious, but wonder how the choice of undergrad affects getting into grad school for someone who may be bound for academics? My son who is gifted in math and Nat’l Merit Finalist can go to a good state school (U. Cincinnati) for the price of a meal plan, or top-notch engineering school where the scholarships, while substantial, would still leave a $20-30K bill… Hard to know if the “door” that would be opened by going to the elite school would really be worth $100 grand. Are there good sources of statistics for acceptance into elite grad programs based on undergraduate school?

    1. There is a book recently published by a New York Times reporter who SAT IN on PhD candidate admission meetings and she discovered that the better the undergrad program and the GRE scores the more likely the committee was to grant admission. This is our world right now with a HS senior who is national merit, Eagle Scout, top 10%, etc… Do we send him to OU’s national scholar program for free? University of Texas at Austin to be one of 13,000 freshmen, or cough up $60k/yr for UVa? Or maybe Hopkins?
      As a petite blonde girl graduating in 1988 I found my Hopkins pedigree cut months off of having to prove I was smart. Not sure if my son will need that, but my boss today brags about where I went to school….

  32. I went to North Dakota State University in Fargo where I graduated with a B.S. in a highly technical field. I had a 3.94 GPA and qualified for grad school nearly everywhere I applied. I attended Stanford and earned my M.S. in the same field. Even in the M.S. degree I did not engage in much of the basic research. My undergrad professors at NDSU were better teachers than my grad professors at Stanford. However, the course work and fellow students at Stanford were much better.

    I felt I got the best of both worlds. I opted not to stay on for a PhD.

  33. When I was working with Accenture they did a study that showed that the most successful partners at the time had worked during college. It adds to the writer’s notion that things like grit matter as much as anything.

    I would be careful, however, undervaluing grades as they are also often an indicator of grit. Having worked in the consulting industry, I had the ability to work some of the best corporations in America. I didn’t meet many dummies and I didn’t meet many people who barely graduated with a C average. Grades aren’t the only thing that matter, but I guarantee you they matter more than many modern popular business writers like to imagine.

  34. Choose the best name from the cheapest schools that accept you as an undergrad.
    Get really good grades.
    Do an awesome sounding internship.
    Go for a top grad school to finish up.
    I did a state school then an Ivy. In the end, I became very proficient in my field because I’m good at it; the school part is just the handshake that gets you started on your way.
    If your talent shines, you will never be invisible.
    Do what you’re good at, not what sounds good to other people.

  35. John K……

    If your question is in response to my statement, then my answer is “no”. I have been told that much decision by colleges and universities who need to maintain their image is determined by other crtieria also: legacies
    (highlighting continuation of prestige and heritage), the “giver” parent (now it has to be 7- 10 million or more), the accomplished musician and/or the outstanding athlete, dancer, etc (they need these kids to keep their standing in these fields), etc. According to my very experienced and connected source, it’s a game and a very sneaky and unfortunate one. The focus is NOT on each individual student, as is presented in the admissions process. In fact, I have been told that Ivy kids, although impressive on paper (in HS and in undergrad), present themselves as too elitist and do not fair well in a collaborative setting. They come in with an entitled perspective and do not perform as required. Many, who do have trust funds, are not hard or determined workers. As a result, employers, in the long run, see that many Ivy grads do not have what it takes to benefit the company or themselves as moving through the corporate ranks. Furthermore, having been so protected and not experienced in making their own decisions, many Ivy grads break under pressure and cannot live up to challenges that require analytical skills when faced with obstacles.
    Kudos to Phyllis: “Basically, my daughter realized that she needed to attend a university that met more than just her vocational dream. She chose about her whole self and will have a wonderful college experience and future.” We need to focus on the whole child, not the GPA/ scores or what appears on paper. It’s the GRIT, DETERMINATION, ability to bounce back after REJECTION, and a PEOPLE PERSON who can sell him or herself who will ultimately be the success story.


    1. I think that it is a HUGE generalization to consider all Ivy kids “too elitist and do not fare well in a collaborative setting”. One counter example – the business school ranked as the best team players by the companies that hire them is consistently Dartmouth (the Tuck School, which I attended). There are no doubt people who attend these schools that are elitist, selfish, etc., and perhaps a higher percentage there than at non-elite schools, but what troubles me in the article and with many of the responses are these kinds of generalizations. I know lots of Ivy and other elite grads, and they are as diverse in personality as any other group: some are wonderful (great with people, problem solving, teamwork); some are dicks.

      While you and your source may remain skeptical, it is my experience that these schools are looking at more than just grades, SAT, legacies, and $10M gifts. I do agree, however, that they are not the right fit for everyone, and each student should decide if a school is the right fit for them academically, socially, and financially before attending, be it elite or non-elite.

    2. “I have been told…” characterizes these views of elite schools. It is wishful thinking. Unfortunately or not, the reputation these schools have with those who hire their graduates (or accept them into grad school) is built on the experience they have with employees from these schools, not on anecdotal impressions based on a hope of equality.
      There is also a misunderstanding demonstrated here on an assumed equivalence between”elite” and “Ivy”. Eliteness(?) depends significantly on the field of choice. Are CMU and UWa elite schools? They are if you decide to major in Computer Science. And UMn and U Wisc? Yes, if you major in ChemE. Those who comment here may not understand this, but those who hire people in these fields certainly co.

  36. Great blog you have here.. It’s difficult to find high-quality writing like yours these days.

    I honestly appreciate individuals like you! Take care!!

  37. My sons opted for state schools vs the elite privates. We didn’t qualify for aide and they did not want debt. I would have gotten another job to make it work but my husband said no. One gave up MIT but never regretted and was the top of his engineering at the state school. Im sure he would’ve learned a lot more at MIT but his opportunities have been great and he is happy with his first job. He has no regrets but I do regret for not pushing him to go there and maybe because so many people we know are wrapped into “names” of where you attended. My son went for where he felt more comfortable and didn’t buy into brand. After 6 mos on his first job, he said he has his eyes on moving into a leadership role.

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