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Does it Matter Where You Go To College?

Getting into an elite college is becoming increasingly harder, and many students (and their parents) place tremendous stress on themselves to try to do all they can to get into one of the most prestigious schools. They believe that graduating from a top college will allow them to have a more prosperous future. While it’s undeniable that elite colleges attract the highest caliber of student, there’s still debate about whether these colleges directly impact professional outcomes. So really, does it matter where you go to college?

Keep in mind that I’m focusing on the potential financial and professional benefits of going to a top college. Elite colleges may also challenge you more academically, and you may enjoy surrounding yourself with other incredibly motivated and successful students. On the other hand, some of the classes at top schools may make you feel overwhelmed. You may feel compelled to select a less rigorous major, or you may not have time to do as many extracurricular activities or have an enjoyable social life.

Probably, the main reason students and their parents care about gaining admission to top colleges is because they believe that attending one of these schools is a ticket to future success. While it’s difficult to prove that going to an elite college makes you successful, there’s a strong relationship between attending an elite school and being successful. On average, graduates from elite schools make more money and degrees from many elite schools provide the best return on your college investment.

Even if you believe that all college degrees are equal, the top schools tend to have the highest graduation rates. Those who attend the most prestigious schools are much more likely to get degrees. For example, Harvard’s graduation rate is 98%. Meanwhile, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a significantly less selective state school, has a graduation rate of 76%. Cal State Los Angeles, has a graduation rate of 33%.

There are a number of factors that may contribute to the varying graduation rates. The most selective schools only admit top students; therefore, almost all of their students possess the necessary motivation to ensure that they graduate. Also, selective schools, particularly selective private schools, may offer more support services and guidance that result in higher graduation rates. Furthermore, some of the larger, less selective state schools have a higher percentage of low-income and nontraditional students. These students face additional obstacles that can prevent them from graduating.

A widely read study by the National Bureau of Economic Research determined that, for students admitted to elite schools, choosing to attend a somewhat selective school like Penn State over the most selective schools like Harvard didn’t impact future earnings for the majority. However, the payoff of attending elite colleges was greater for economically disadvantaged students. For the most part, the study concluded that what really matters isn’t where you go to school but possessing the attributes that make you competitive for admission to the top schools.

Similarly, a Wall Street Journal study from 2015 found that the prestige of a college doesn’t impact future earnings for many students. Specifically, the study concluded that a school’s prestige does have an impact on future earnings for business and liberal arts majors, but there is virtually no impact on future earnings for STEM majors.

Even assuming that going to a top college leads to somewhat higher earnings, though, those higher earnings may be more than offset by the substantially higher price of elite private colleges. For example, for the 2017-2018 academic year, the estimated cost of attendance for a year at Stanford is $69,109. For a California resident, the estimated cost of attendance for UCLA is $33,896. Over four years, that’s a difference of more than $120,000.

If, hypothetically, the Stanford degree led to an annual salary that was $2,000 more than the UCLA degree, it would take more than 60 years of that extra salary just to cover the added cost of attending Stanford. However, keep in mind that elite private colleges typically offer the most generous financial aid. The listed cost of attendance may not be what you end up having to pay.

Perhaps you’re now thoroughly confused about whether or not it matters where you go to college. The short answer is that it depends. Primarily, it depends on your goals and background. If you want to become president or a CEO, you may be more likely to do so if you attend one of the most elite colleges. Similarly, some of the top Wall Street and consulting firms are known to almost exclusively hire employees who graduated from the most prestigious schools. Furthermore, graduates of elite colleges have an advantage in the business world due to their strong, powerful alumni networks. However, if you want to be a scientist or teacher, there may not be much of an advantage, at least monetarily, from attending a top school.

Additionally, the data does suggest that students from low-income backgrounds may benefit the most from attending elite schools and choosing to attend the most selective school that accepts them. While wealthy students tend to thrive in any environment, low-income students may reap the greatest rewards from going to the best colleges.

Lastly, the answer depends on which schools you’re comparing. The difference between graduating from Stanford and graduating from UCLA is probably minimal, if there’s any difference at all, in the eyes of most employers and graduate schools. However, there’s a much larger difference between Stanford and Cal State Los Angeles. Again, you can still achieve any professional goal if you graduate from Cal State Los Angeles, but the graduation rate of Stanford is significantly higher, and the average salaries of Stanford grads are substantially higher.

Primarily, you should focus on attending the school that’s the best for you and your goals. For example, while the University of Utah is ranked the 111th best National University in the country by US News, it’s considered one of the very best colleges in the country for video game design. If you want to be a video game designer, going to the University of Utah may be more beneficial to your future career than going to Princeton or Yale.

You can graduate from any college, and if you fully apply yourself, you can be a successful video game designer, CEO, doctor, engineer, or whatever else you aspire to be. Similarly, if you go to an Ivy League college and try to coast through life without showing the dedication that got you into an elite college, you’re likely to experience limited success.


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