Choosing the right college is no cakewalk. When deciding the place where you will spend the next four years of your life, what are the most important factors to take into account? Culture? Cost? Size? Program? Is the food good??
The University of California- Los Angeles completed a study asking over 190,000 freshman students what the most important factors in choosing a college were. 63.8 percent of freshman students said that the college having a very good academic reputation was “very important” to them. 55.9 percent of students said they found it very important that the college’s graduates get good jobs. The cost of attending the school and the amount of financial aid offered were also in the top five reasons the students made their selection.
If “good academics” is top of the list, we must ask the question; “what constitutes ‘good academics’”? Does it hinge on how strong a specific program at the school might be? On the professors in your desired department – their qualifications and achievements? Or what about the prestige of the college or university as a whole? How many people know it? This latter factor is what many students and families consider to be most important.
But, does the “name” of the school really matter? Will I get a better education at, say, Harvard, versus Pennsylvania State University? There is much to consider, and a sizeable amount of research has been done to take on the question.
The first place people tend to look is potential future salary. The common line of thinking is that the more prestigious the school you attend, the higher your salary will be after you graduate. People figure that even if they’re paying more for tuition now (reasoning being that the more prestigious school you attend, the higher the tuition), they’re maximizing their earnings down the road. However, following this idea blindly can actually end up burdening you with more debt down the road. Eric Eide and Michael Hilmer of The Wall Street Journal find that diplomas from prestigious schools boost future earnings only in certain fields, while in other fields such as science, technology, engineering and math, they simply don’t make a difference. It largely doesn’t matter whether students go to a prestigious, expensive school or a low-priced one in STEM fields because their expected earnings turn out the same. Eide and Hilmer demonstrate:
…if an engineering student chose to attend the University of Pennsylvania instead of Texas A&M, the average starting salary would differ by less than $1,000, but the tuition difference would be over $167,000. At that slightly higher salary, you’d have to work for more than 150 years before you make up for that vast tuition difference.
While it may not matter as much for STEM students, business and law can be a different story. However, studies show that only 38.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs went to an “elite” college. While the graduates of these elite schools may dominate the public eye, over half of the billionaires, CEOs, and political figures did not attend a school with a household name.
The most well-known study conducted on this issue was done by Stacy Dale of Mathematica Policy Research, and Alan Krueger of Princeton University. Dale and Krueger concluded that students, who were accepted into elite schools, but went to less selective institutions, earned salaries just as high as Ivy League grads. The newest study completed by the pair gives more concrete evidence of this idea:
Applicants, who shared similar high SAT scores with Ivy League applicants could have been rejected from the elite schools that they applied to and yet they still enjoyed similar average salaries as the graduates from elite schools. In the study, the better predictor of earnings was the average SAT scores of the most selective school a teenager applied to and not the typical scores of the institution the student attended (The Ivy League Earnings Myth).
Essentially, the pair found that after 20 years, where you attended school makes little to no difference.
Furthermore, for many potential employers, the skills students learn in their fields appear to be more important than prestige. “Employers are interested in what skills you bring and how these skills can be used in their business,” Kris Stadelman, director of the NOVA Workforce Investment Board in Silicon Valley, says. In one study, NOVA interviewed tech employers and learned that mastery of current technologies is the most critical factor in their hiring decisions. Few employers even mentioned college degrees as a factor. ”Especially in the tech industry, employers want to see skills applications rather than traditional resumes. Show, don’t tell,” says Stadelman.
Moreover, author and editor Gregg Easterbrook researched and assessed the impacts of other measures such as job satisfaction and social value. He found that on a range of measures of job satisfaction, attending an elite college had little impact. Ultimately, SAT scores and GPAs give an incomplete picture of a student’s potential. Jeff Guo, reporter for The Washington Post, reminds us that it’s hard to measure things like grit, or creativity- or intelligence – things that are literally “off the charts”. Thus, attending a school with a well-known, good name may only go so far. There are so many other factors to consider.
As someone who took on this challenge when selecting my college, my best piece of advice is this:
Take the name off of the college and look simply at what the school offers. What are the stats? Look at the program you want, extracurricular opportunities, social life. Talk to a professor about classes you would take and opportunities within the department. Talk to a career services employee to check out the placement rate of graduated students. Talk to a current student about what it’s like to actually be a student at that school.
It’s more important to choose what you want in a school and then find a college that honestly fits your criteria, instead of choosing a school for its name and trying to make your life and education there bend to fit. As Shakespeare once said, “what’s in a name?”
“A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet.”
photo credit: http://eskipaper.com/images/beautiful-flower-red-rose-photo-1.jpg
Author, Olivia Buirge is a junior Middle Level Science & History Education major with a Psychology minor. She loves being involved in Orientation Board, Greek Life, the Education department and working for the Admissions Office! She is very excited to pursue a career in teaching and school counseling in the future.