The Ivy Dream – Correlating Success with College Brand
Do you know what Richard Branson (CEO of Virgin), Michael Dell (CEO of Dell Computers), and Paul Allen (Microsoft’s co-founder) have in common? These corporate superstars never attended, nor graduated, from an Ivy League school. Yet today, they are considered some of the most successful executives in the world.
The Ivy League dream. Many students suffer from it; many parents desire it for their children —to earn an education in a brand-name school that can secure a top salary, offer amazing career opportunities, and the chance to take that next step to become a great leader. Or not? Every day, we hear more success stories about professionals who did not attend a top-tier school. One interesting case was shown by Dale and Krueger’s research paper “Estimating the Payoff to Attending a More Selective College.” This team of respected scholars conducted an in-depth study and concluded that if you are talented enough to gain acceptance to a top-tier school, whether you actually attend that school or not will make no statistical difference in your income twenty years after graduation. The study presented current income for the class of 1976 freshman of 34 colleges. The range went from students that gained admission to some highly selective schools such as Yale, Dartmouth, and Harvard, and students that attended less selective schools such as Penn State and Denison University. The study assessed whether the average annual earnings for students attending Princeton and Columbia, for example, would differ if they would have attended a less selective school. We might find this surprising (I actually find it refreshing), but the research findings proved that attending (or not) an elite school will not directly help or harm a student’s capacity to be positioned in a higher or lower pay scale. What Krueger and Dale concluded is also supported by tons of anecdotal information, as Gregg Easterbrook quotes in his article “Who Needs Harvard?” One of the examples he offers is the U.S. Senate, which only lists twenty-six members with undergraduate degrees from super selective schools, while explaining that “half of U.S. senators are graduates of public universities, and many went to “states”—among them Chico State, Colorado State, Iowa State,…” What does this mean for students? It means that there certainly is a wide range of great choices for students seeking an education that propels an outstanding career.
As a college counselor, stressing over college choices is part of my daily routine. However, my stress is related to finding schools with the right fit for the student. I want to make sure that the college the student finally selects is one where they’ll be able to thrive academically, socially, and personally, while opening opportunities for career advancement. Oftentimes, parents and students themselves feel the pressure of choosing a school for the wrong reasons – name recognition, rankings, status quo in the admissions world, and, simply, brand name recognition. I see students often believing that selectivity is correlated with future professional success. As Dale and Krueger, and countless personal examples have proven, this is not so. So taking this out of the equation, since it is no longer valid (right?), let’s evaluate what really is important.
I’ll start with the reminder that the college admissions process should not be a student’s final life goal. When admissions are seen as the means to an end, but not as the award received for doing everything right, that is a start with the right foot. Going to college is one small step (albeit an important one) in what hopefully will become a long-term professional success story. The buck does not stop here! If you gain admission to the college of your choice, it does not mean that you have “arrived.” Often, I see students thinking that they have it made because they are attending an Ivy League school. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. These same students have an equal chance to find themselves unemployed after graduation as those attending less prestigious schools. It is what got you in to a school that can help you get far: discipline, creativity, sense of responsibility, and maturity used during the college admissions process. These traits, and others like perseverance, ambition, and any exceptional abilities you possess, are important aspects of who you are and what you offer as a professional. Keeping this in mind, you will be ready to take advantage of the opportunities placed in front of you.
Know this: when choosing a school considering fit, you will gain acceptance to a community where you have a great chance to thrive. It will make no difference in your long-term career success if you attend a highly selective school or not. However, your talent, commitment, ambition, and the opportunities you take to challenge yourself will be essential to secure a place in a great Master’s/Doctoral program, to open doors professionally, and ultimately to achieve your career goals. So, get ready to combine these attributes and the educational opportunities provided to you in order to seize your future and become the superstar you are meant to be!