Ten years after graduating from Princeton University, I continue to see my peers achieve success in a wide variety of fields whether they attended an equally prestigious Ivy League school, a small liberal arts college, or a large public university. Anecdotally, I find that a person’s drive and dedication determine their success, not just the name of their undergraduate institution. The data also bear this out. For this reason, I always encourage my students to apply to schools where they can become the happiest and most successful version of themselves, rather than limit themselves only to the schools they perceive as the most prestigious.
Many students see the most elite schools as the only certain conduit to financial success. However, this is just not true. Students accepted to elite colleges who chose “moderately selective” colleges do just as well salary-wise in the medium and long term as those at the most elite colleges. The Wall Street Journal reported data in 2016 showing “no statistically significant differences in average earnings for science majors from selective schools and mid-tier or less-selective schools.” While entry level pay is higher for social science majors from Harvard than those from Colgate University or Boston College, the mid-career median pay is actually higher for social science majors from BC and Colgate than from Harvard. What about humanities majors? Tufts graduates make more in both entry-level and mid-career roles than those with the same degrees from Ivy League institutions like the University of Pennsylvania or Columbia University.
So if putting together a college list isn’t solely about salary or some other stand-in measure of “success,” then what is it about? Four formative years of a student’s life are spent in college. For this reason, students should apply to colleges that are the best fit for them to thrive and be happy, where they can most further their interests and goals. For example, many larger public schools offer academic programs that many of the elite schools lack. Looking for a future job in the growing field of food science? The University of Maryland and Penn State have entire food science departments that provide the specific education, internships, and network that can transform a student into a superstar in this career path. I’m surprised by students who choose a certain college for its prestigious reputation rather than another school that would provide them with more opportunities to take classes and build a network in the field that interests them most.
Additionally, for many types of careers and graduate school admissions, strong grades and school involvement matter more than the college name on your diploma. When it comes to MDs, JDs, and MBAs, graduate school plays a much larger role in determining future success than undergrad does. A student from a large public school or small liberal arts school with stellar grades who really immersed themselves in student life will generally have a better shot at a prestigious graduate degree than a C-student from a Princeton, Harvard, or Yale who never really found themselves.
We advise students to choose universities, Ivy or otherwise, where they are likeliest to excel, to develop passions, and to be themselves. Sure, look at a school’s ranking and its name, but remember this is just a small part of your happiness equation.
Are you at your best in a hyper-competitive atmosphere or do you find success in a more collaborative environment? Do you thrive in a more nurturing community or do you prefer to be more independent? Do you feed off the energy of a big city or need to immerse yourself in a quiet college town? Is it time to experience life far from your family or are you at your best when you have your local support network a car ride away?
Talk to recent graduates and current students and find out why they loved their college. The New York Times has great advice on the importance of these conversations. Do your research. Create a college list that really fits you, not just a series of names you think sound impressive. For many, college is one of the most transformative experiences of a lifetime. Make it count. Find yourself.