Admissions

It Doesn't Matter Where You Go to College

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Are you yelling at my post’s title? Yes, I think I hear, “Are you nuts?! Of course it matters where you go to college. Dave, you’re a moron!”

Being the nice guy that I am, I take no offense at the outrage. In fact, I understand the outrage. The mythology of higher education has filtered down across the decades, even centuries, and many hold an Ivy League or other so-called “elite” college (whatever that means) in an esteemed place of high honor.


The unfortunate consequence of students (and especially parents) maintaining this misinformed mythology is that hopes and expectations can become distorted and self-worth sharply diminished in the wake of not being accepted by the shimmering mirage of a “dream” college.

The Right Choice Depends on You

To be fair, I cannot deny the gravity of some highly regarded schools’ degrees. As an example of this influence, allow me a personal anecdote. Our son graduated with his electrical engineering degree in Princeton University’s Class of 1999. Upon graduation, he had a long list of companies eager to recruit his skills, offering him some surprising (at least to me) perks.

He completed his rounds of interviews, made his decision and began his career, which has culminated this past year, almost two decades after graduation, with him forming his own company. He must be following my advice that the best company to work for is the one you start yourself.

So, yes, a Princeton engineering degree did make a difference … for him. But, there were thousands upon thousands of Class of ‘99 graduates at countless other schools who have attained similar, if not greater, success without an Ivy League degree.

I’m from Penn State’s Class of 1972, with my liberal arts degree from the College of Arts and Architecture. While I didn’t have a list of eager pursuers waiting for me when I claimed my B.A., I have prospered in my life. Looking back, I can honestly say that my life has been a journey with both blessings and challenges. Fortunately, blessings are in the majority.

I’m writing today to several target audiences: First, to current high school seniors who feel disappointed about the outcome of their college quest this past year. Second, I want to make a strong point to the parents of those frustrated seniors. Lastly, I’m addressing high school sophomores and juniors and their parents who will enter the college-process arena soon, I’d like you to pay heed to my title’s wisdom. Trust me, there is wisdom there.

A Well-Supported Opinion

But why take my word for this contention? Consider a supporting view from Time writer, William Stixrud, who contends that, It’s Time to Tell Your Kids It Doesn’t Matter Where They Go To College. Stixrud notes, in part:

We’ve all heard the familiar anxiety-inducing nostrums: That a screw-up in high school will follow you for the rest of your life. That if you don’t get into Harvard or Yale, you’ll never reach the c-suite. That the path to success is narrow and you’d better not take one false step. I have come to think of this unfounded belief system as what we psychologists call a “shared delusion.”

So why don’t we tell our kids the truth about success? We could start with the fact that only a third of adults hold degrees from four-year colleges. Or that you’ll do equally well in terms of income, job satisfaction and life satisfaction whether you go to an elite private college or a less-selective state university. Or that there are there are many occupations through which Americans make a living, many of which do not require a college degree.

The problem with the stories we’re telling our kids is that they foster fear and competition. This false paradigm affects high-achieving kids, for whom a rigid view of the path to success creates unnecessary anxiety, and low-achieving kids, many of whom conclude at a young age that they will never be successful, and adopt a “why try at all?” attitude. Many of these young people engage in one of the most debilitating forms of self-talk, telling themselves either, “I have to, but I can’t,” or “I have to, but I hate it.”

Why do we encourage our children to embrace this delusional view of what it takes to be successful?

I’ve asked various school administrators why they don’t just tell kids the truth about college — that where you go makes very little difference later in life. [My emphasis.]

They’ll shrug and say, “Even if we did, no one would believe it.” One confided to me, “We would get angry calls and letters from parents who believe that, if their children understood the truth, they would not work hard in school and would have second-class lives.” ...

So if you want your kids to succeed in life, don’t perpetuate a fear-based understanding of success. Start with the assumption that your children want their lives to work. Then tell them the truth: That we become successful by working hard at something that engages us, and by pulling ourselves up when we stumble.

Please read Stixrud’s entire article for some terrifically rational thoughts about this critical topic.

Fixation on Ivy League Often Misplaced

In my work as an independent college admissions counselor, I constantly deal with high school juniors and seniors (and their parents) who have an almost immovable fixation on the Ivy League, especially The Big Three: Princeton, Harvard and Yale. I know the admission percentages of these schools all too well: Low-to-mid single digits!

Regardless of my admonitions and cautions, they trudge on through the onerous application process and many times fall short of their dream goal. But along with their crushing disappointment comes the good news from other perfectly great schools. Sadly, still downcast, they enroll in one of these fine institutions as a kind of consolation prize, an attitude that couldn’t be more misguided.

The phrase that I use most often at the very beginning of my encounters with these students and families is “adjust your thinking.” I want them to know that they face a huge uphill challenge with their Ivy/elite hopes. Sometimes they listen; most times they don’t.

Take This As Encouragement

So, today, I’ll intone my mantra again to my three target audiences here, but this time it’s not a warning; it’s an encouragement. Adjust your thinking about what is possible in your life, regardless of where you go to college.

I’ll close with a reprise of Bill Stixrud’s song of success: “... we become successful by working hard at something that engages us, and by pulling ourselves up when we stumble.” These wonderful, weighty words should be trumpeted from the mountaintops, printed on leaflets and dropped from airplanes … or at least be prominently displayed on your refrigerator!

Your (hopefully) many decades of life following whatever college you’ve attended will fulfill your dreams and accomplish your goals if you:

  1. Adjust your thinking … and

  1. Work hard at your passion and get back up when knocked down.

No, it doesn’t matter where you go to college. It’s what’s in your heart and head that count. Take that to the bank … today!