The obsession to attend a top college is crap!

There is a prevailing myth that states that where you go to college is critical and it’s the most important predictor of success in life. High school seniors are making their final choices about what college to attend next year, and I worry that their belief system says that it’s a top tier college or bust. The truth is that it doesn’t really matter where you go to college in terms of life earnings, happiness, or fulfillment. Let’s try to bust this myth, shall we?

Top CEOs did not attend elite colleges

Of the CEOs in the Fortune top 100 companies list, only 12 attended an Ivy league school. Surprised? This finding is consistent with Pulitzer prize winners in journalism, MacArthur Foundation genius grant recipients, and leaders in the fields of science and engineering. The top people in these fields went to a mix of public and private colleges, and top tier and small liberal arts schools, demonstrating that there is no one path to success. Let me offer a few examples to prove this point.

C. Douglas McMillon, president and CEO of Walmart Inc., the number 1 ranked company on the Fortune 500 list, is a graduate of the University of Arkansas. McMillon began working at Walmart in 1984 to pay for college, unloading trucks at a distribution center as a high school student before gradually ascending to the top of the corporate ladder in 2014. Warren Buffett graduated from the University of Nebraska—Lincoln. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, earned his degree at Princeton University in New Jersey but he is the only Ivy League graduate leading the top 10 companies. 

Ivy League mythology

Yet, there is an Ivy League mythology that has spawned an ever-growing industry of test prep classes, camps, and publications. News stories about parents cheating to get their kids into top universities underscores how college admissions have become so cutthroat and competitive that some have sought to circumvent the rules. These stories are also a reminder of the inequality in America’s college admissions process

Mental health issues have increased to record highs on college campuses. I have found that the high levels of anxiety, depression, and stress in the college women I counsel is in large part due to not attending college or choosing their field of study for THEIR reasons. They describe making choices based on not wanting to disappoint their parents and teachers and because they have adopted the narrow list of acceptable outcomes to strive for. The pressure to live up to the unrealistic standard of being accepted into a top college has become like an arms race, and parents keep ratcheting each other up. 

Pressure to attend an elite college

Starting in childhood, kids have been pushed into the rat race of competing on the best club sports teams, being the best, attaining straight A’s, and being popular. The pressure gets heightened with their parent’s obsession with giving them a leg up on their peers by any means possible. The focus on attending a top university is an outgrowth of kids being conditioned to focus on fame, prestige, winning, name brands of clothes, and in the end, the name brand of colleges. I have counseled many a high school senior who feels like a failure because they weren’t accepted into an elite university; it’s an elite college or bust. 

What’s important to employers?

Research has repeatedly shown that college matters: graduates are more likely than nongraduates to be employed, to earn good salaries, to be happy and to live long lives. But many studies have also documented that grades and where you go to college has little predictive value for future earnings or levels of well-being. I met a woman a few years ago who owns a company that manufactures airplanes. She told me that when she gets a job application from an engineering grad who sports a 4.0 GPA, she throws it into the trash can. Like the thousands of other successful business owners I have met from 18 countries over the past 20 years, she is looking for candidates who have people skills and the ability and curiosity to learn vs. the name emblazoned across their sweatshirt.

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, optimism, integrity, people skills, street smarts, stamina, and determination. Employers love applicants who have demonstrated the ability to grab onto an interest and pursue it with passion and determination. If developing these qualities is our intention for people entering college and the workforce, then we need to shift our focus starting in childhood.

WHY & HOW you go to college is most important

As a parent, be conscious of what you value and where you put your energy. Teach your kids that WHY they are choosing a college is more important than where they end up. HOW they do their college experience is also more valuable than the name of the university. Have the courage to swim against the tide of parents and an educational system obsessed with the elite college myth.

Don’t miss Dr. Jordan’s book full of insight and advice for young adults on how to create a meaningful life: Letters from My Grandfather: Timeless Wisdom For a Life Worth Living

Letters from my grandfather

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