Is the College You Go to Important?

October 24th, 2007 by Bob Bly

Couples we know here in Bergen county NJ are absolutely frantic about getting their kids into a “good school,” i.e., an Ivy League college.

I’m not, because I’m convinced that where you graduate from college and the grades you get don’t play much of a role in determining your success in life.

“One tragic misconception is that you have to go to a prestigious, big-name academic institution to really get ahead,” writes Thomas Sowell in his New York Post column today.

He notes that the academic prestige of places like Harvard is based mostly on the research achievements, not the teaching skills, of the faculty.

Worse, unless you go on to postgraduate study, these big names may not be teaching you anything at all, since lower-levle courses are usually left to be taught by junior faculty members or even grad students.

So if the college you go to isn’t that important, what is the key to helping your child to be successful in life?

I am convinced it is largely one thing: encouraging your children to discover their true calling — the one thing that totally engages their interest and passion.

If you can do that, their natural curiosity, intelligence, and drive will take them the rest of the way.

Sowell concludes: “Getting into Prestige U. isn’t the life-or-death thing that some students or their parents think it is.”

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44 responses about “Is the College You Go to Important?”

  1. Philip McLean said:

    I’m going to say it depends on what field you’re going into. If I want to work with a major investment banker or hedge fund, I’ll want to land an internship while I’m in college, and that’ll be easier from Columbia or Princeton than it would be from Southern Connecticut State.

  2. Bob Bly said:

    Philip: I almost said in my original post — and should have — that the obvious exceptions to my statement are investment banking, finance, law, and medicine. In those cases, getting into a top college is a definite advantage, though not a requisite.

  3. Susanna K. Hutcheson said:

    It’s been my observation that if someone wants to go into politics or major league law, it’s almost a must to go to Harvard, Yale of Princeton, in that order. Stanford follows.

    If you look at the Supreme Court and the current and former and next presidents, you’ll see Ivy League almost exclusively. It’s sort of a small but very important group of people who run the country.

    If a person is going into business, the school is not so important on a resume. But, in truth, private schools are far superior to public (state) schools. I call them government schools. Lots of dummies come out of government schools and the standards are not high.

    If I was sending a kid to school and could afford it and he or she had the grades, I would go Ivy League all the way. It’s just a hard fact of life.

    I’ve gone to government schools, one private Midwest school and one private new england school. And I can tell you the education at private schools is superior. I’m sure lots of people will disagree with me. But life is not fair.

  4. Michael said:

    I’ll agree with Ms. Hutcheson. I went to a private college in California (considered now to be the Harvard of the West Coast, though not when I went) and then did my graduate work at what used to call a “state college.” My private school experience beat my state school experience in every respect.

    I guess it really depends on the field you want to go into, the state, and the region in which you want to work. Someone who graduated from Georgia State is obviously going to have more clout with employers in GA than if they had the same degree from UCLA.

  5. Dianna Huff said:

    I am the product of a state school system and am proud to say I did both my BA and MA at the California State University system.

    After I graduated I was alumni president for two years. I met a ton of very successful people, some of whom were CEOs of very successful companies, who had also graduated from CSU.

    It’s not where you go but what you make of yourself that counts.

  6. Deborah said:

    I would agree with all, that in the fields specified, the college name/reputation carries a lot of weight but what about all of the other career choices. My son is a junior in high school – smart in the head and street smart but not a good fit for “traditional” education and so his grade point is low, i.e. He’s a lazy son of a gun. I waffle between not worrying and stressing over the fact that, at least for his freshman year, he’s going to be hard put to get into a name school.

    But fast forward 30 years – who cares? Unless you wear your fraternity pin on your tie, does it come up in boardroom discussions when you are planning the next five year direction of a company?

    What DOES matter is getting the blasted degree. I dropped out to get married – there was a fool’s errand – and slowly worked my way up from secretary to store manager to field manager to Director of Communications of an International optical retailer. I can guarantee that my college background was not a topic of discussion except at happy hour when people recounted their college drinking stories.

    However, three years ago my company was purchased by the number one optical retailer and all of a sudden my experience and my success and what I brought to the table meant NOTHING. I met with head hunters and couldn’t even get an interview for a field management position even though I’d been successfully responsible for 40-50 million dollars in annual sales in my territory. That bloody piece of paper – no matter the school name – all of a sudden defined who I wasn’t.

    I opened my own doors and couldn’t be happier but every once and awhile a head hunter will call. I don’t care about going back to the corporate world so I say right off “I didn’t finish college 35 years ago, is that going to be an issue?” And every time they say “thanks but no thanks my client insists on a college degree.”

    My lazy, rock star, creative genius son KNOWS that he will be going to college because he’s tired of hearing me gripe about the fact that I am still, all these years later, judged by the fact that I never finished college.

    Not that I feel strongly about it or anything.

    Yes, the college matters in the fields you discussed. No, it doesn’t matter in other fields i.e. marketing, business (except for your MBA), education, social work, public service, graphics, and technology. Oh to say you went to MIT is a good thing, but most don’t. The industry is changing so rapidly, I don’t think it matters.

    There you go.

    Deborah

  7. Fern said:

    Last week, Stephen Colbert interviewed Paul Glastris from Washington Monthly. Their controversial college ranking guide (in its 3rd year) lists only one Ivy League college in their top 10 list (Cornell).

    While well-known annual college ranking guides like the one published by US World & News Report’s ranks schools on things like SAT scores, WM’s guide ranks on things like what colleges do for our country and what kind of opportunities they give to students who can’t afford college tuitions.

    WM reasons that we wouldn’t necessarily rank a restaurant based on how much they pay for the silverware and we shouldn’t rank the quality of an education on how much we’re going to pay in tuition.

    In fact, their supplemental guide on the top 30 community colleges — researched through with an educational think tank in DC — says that many of the community colleges provide better educations than traditional top-ranked schools.

    Interesting to note: WM has Harvard ranked at #27 and Dartmouth at #75. Their #1 college is Texas A&M — one reason being they recruit and graduate more low-income students than any other college.

  8. Kelja said:

    College is basically a waste of four years unless you’re exceptionally focused. For most, it’s just a way to delay growing up. I went 25 years ago and finished with a 3.75 grade point. I worked the system: knew which classes were the cake classes and how to wow the teachers. I majored in Poly Sci, admittedly a bunch of nonsense. My true focus was to meet a lot of women, drink lots of beer,and play Rugby. I accomplished all my goals admirably.

    I’m successful despite going to college.

    Now with my 7 1/2 year old daughter, I’ve decided to ‘front-load’ the education process. I pay dearly for private school but it’s paying off. My 2nd Grader reads at a 5th or 6th grade level. If things work out, and if she wants to, she’ll wind up going to any university she wants and they’ll pay her to come.

    I know I’m hopeless.

  9. Tom Messner said:

    Sowell, himself, I think credited a teacher in his Harlem grammar school with giving him the basic education that later enabled him to get a doctorate in economics and be a student of Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago. So Keija has the right idea or at least an idea that Sowell and I agree with.
    But what schools’ graduates should an ad agency look at to recruit?
    Perhaps graduates of widely differing schools, even non-graduates.

  10. Richard Armstrong said:

    I generally agree with everything you said, Bob, but I’ve noticed one interesting phenomenon over the years. The Ivy Leaguers really take care of each other in business. It’s almost like they’ve joined some kind of cosa nostra. I’ve known a few people from Harvard and Yale, for example, who derive literally ALL their business from fellow alums. Other than that, it really doesn’t matter. I don’t ever recall being asked where I went to college in a business context since I graduated thirty-five years ago.

  11. Fern said:

    For a really interesting read on the Ivies, go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ivy_League .

    Richard, my husband went to Columbia for his MBA and while they all keep in touch, they’re not so good about sending leads each others way. Maybe Harvard and Yale grads are smarter networkers. ; )

  12. SpongeBob Fan said:

    I live near Cambridge, Mass. and around here everyone knows at least 10 dopes who went to Harvard. It’s nice and all that, but – in an admittedly strange way – it gets very little respect.

    A few years ago, we were in San Francisco. I went out to fetch the coffee and, because it was freezing!, I tossed on my husband’s Harvard sweatshirt. (Yes, he went there. Yes, we know at least 10 dopes who went there. Happily, he’s not one of ‘em!)

    I got such a reaction from the gent at the coffee shop – all “What’s it like?” and “Your husband was lucky to go there.” Much more that I would e-v-e-r get in the Boston area where plenty of Harvard graduates work at the coffee shops!

    From that I formed my “distance matters,” theory of going to college — if you think you’re going to live on the East Coast after college, go to a Mid-West or West Coast school and vice-versa. People are naturally disdainful of what’s nearby and fascinated by what’s not.

    As to the networking, I’d bet that two people who went to the University of Nebraska but were colleagues in business in Boston would favor each other a little bit too. I was lucky enough to go to a small private college which was perfect for me in every way … I had a much better experience there than my husband did at Harvard. He’s never “networked” with anyone from there, and his first job out of Harvard was packing boxes!

    Sowell’s right, parents — look for the college where your kid will thrive. That’s the kind of place that will give them a truly life-enhancing (& worth the tuition) experience.

  13. SpongeBob Fan said:

    P.S. The only people I meet who feel bad about college are the people who didn’t go. I always urge them to find a way to make it happen. This isn’t 1840 … today it hardly matters where a person went but it matters a lot that they did go (and graduate!).

  14. Jodi Kaplan said:

    I agree with Sponge Bob. The right college is the college that suits your skills and your personality. MIT or Harvard would have been completely wrong for me, but Oberlin was just right.

  15. Tom Messner said:

    Re: Armstrong. Every school’s alumni take care of each other, not just the Ivies. The Big Ten, ND, The Little Three, The Seven Sisters. And why not? BBDO seemed to have a recruiter at Amherst, yet Dusenberry from Midwood High did very well there as well as Ted Shaine from Lincoln High, the feeder to the ad business.
    Creating an ad agency, though, that looks at the world and tries to sell things for today and create brands for tomorrow might want a staff that includes MIT grads, some people from Oberlin, and some war veterans who didn’t go to college but learned more about life doing something else.
    Not many agencies can afford MIT grads though and not many MIT grads are attracted to marketing. I knew only one, a copywriter who worked at DDB in the 60s and drifted around a few agencies in the 70s. Very talented guy.

  16. Angie said:

    “Lots of dummies come out of government schools and the standards are not high.” That attitude frankly makes Ivy Leaguers look bad. Seriously, do you think you’re somehow more intelligent than those of us who didn’t go to an Ivy League school?? And where’s the proof that standards aren’t high? I was accepted to a private school in California but couldn’t go for financial reasons nothing more; and I know high school-aged kids who had to take the same route.

    With the exception of the fields mentioned it doesn’t matter where you go to school. And the networking thing – it’s not limited to just Ivy League schools. I’ve had good referrals and recommendations from fellow alumni.

  17. Tom Messner said:

    Two discussions here. One is silly which is the one about the relative benefits of schools. Everyone in the world knows that the humanities departments in American universities are the dregs, doesn’t matter what if it’s the Ivies or a Jesuit School or something that the state governments tax for. Graduate programs and the sciences are still the best there are. So who cares where somebody goes to school except the person who views acceptance and attendance and graduation at such and such school to be the hallmark of success.
    The second discussion is more important: how do you know whom to hire?

  18. Ryan Healy said:

    My feeling: a degree is not a good measure of a person’s ability to perform. A much better indicator would be emotional intelligence… or perhaps how many non-fiction books a person has read in the last year.

    I know far too many college grads who swear off books the first chance they get. They think they’ve paid their dues. Indeed, they’ve arrived! But the fact is, the journey has just begun.

    @SpongeBob Fan – A degree matters little to success. It only matters if you think it matters. Do you know what Thoreau wrote in 1854?

    [Students] should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living? [...] As with our colleges, so with a hundred “modern improvements”; there is an illusion about them; there is not always a positive advance. (Walden, pp. 41-42)

    Not much has changed…

  19. Tom Messner said:

    Here’s a different take on schooling from a recent book review:

    “Let’s say you’re a year away from your 16th birthday, the moment when the all-knowing, all-powerful state says you can escape the burden of formal education.

    “OK. Absorb and put into practice the books below. Read everything in their bibliographies, too. Then quit school and get a job in advertising. Find some clients and start your own agency. Sell the business to the Chinese capitalists, and by 26 you’ll never have to work again.

    “I. Hey Whipple, Squeeze This, by Luke Sullivan. The best primer for someone who wants to write, art direct or produce. Fun to read, too.

    “II. Positioning, by Al Ries and Jack Trout. The cover tells you it is a classic. Truthful cover.

    “III. The Art of Client Service, by Robert Solomon. Fifty-four things every advertising and marketing professional should know about “servicing a client.” Read this at the beginning of your career rather than at the end.

    “IV. Truth, Lies and Advertising, by Jon Steel. Research, account planning, thinking. Whatever you want to call it, done as well as it can be done.

    “V. Advertising Secrets of the Written Word, by Joseph Sugarman. If Mr. Sullivan is too much fun, Sugarman is like solid geometry after Luke’s art appreciation class.”

  20. SpongeBob Fan said:

    See, tho’, that’s exactly it – we don’t live in 1854. We live now. And, when so many people have managed to go to and finish college, it matters that someone hasn’t. (And, no, Bill Gates doesn’t count!) What does graduating college say to me if I’m hiring? Primarily, that someone can stick with something that’s often tedious and come through on the other side. Since so much of work has its tedious parts, I need the people who have are proven performers in that respect. I’ve never heard anyone apologize for graduating college, but have often enough heard people make excuses for not going/graduating. If it bothers them, it bothers me. (Especially when it’s women — it gives them a chip on their shoulder that expanded opportunities were supposed to free women from!)

  21. Scott P. DeMenter said:

    Bob, an even more controversial question is, “Is going to college important?”

    Certainly, for some jobs, it’s a prerequisite. But I’ve met countless successful professionals, business owners, and entrepreneurs with no college degree at all. (And can anyone say Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak, Michael Dell, Woody Allen, Ron Popeil, David Geffen, Ted Turner — need I go on?).

    According to Saul W. Gellerman, Ph.D., “Focus and persistence are all that really distinguish the leaders from the laggars.”

    I myself found my true calling and dropped out of a third-rate college with only 9 credits under my belt.

    What do I do for a living? Direct mail copywriter, naturally.

  22. Chuck McKay said:

    I would add only that it may take a while for your children to find their calling. Asking an 18-year-old what the rest of his life will offer is an exercise in futility for you both.

    Explain that he’s going to get a good general education to prepare him to take advantage of the opportunities we all come across, then have faith that something will resonate within him with the passion that a true calling requires.

  23. SpongeBob Fan said:

    I wonder if Bill & Melinda Gates will insist that their kids go to college.

  24. Matt Spergel said:

    Bob’s advice is excellent: “encouraging your children to discover their true calling — the one thing that totally engages their interest and passion.” That’s what happened to me. Although, I had to figure it out myself without much encouragement.

    Honestly, the really educated people are the ones who use our public libraries on a frequent basis. It’s FREE! ;-)

    P.S. Steve Wozniak went back to college to finish his degree. Although, that was after his success at Apple.

  25. Leigh said:

    I am surprised by many of the job ads I see where one of the requirements is “must be a graduate of a top-tier school.” The funny thing is, I have seen that statement in ads for receptionists!

    I went to a large, well-ranked school my freshman year of college and it was just too expensive for me. The tuition itself was way below private institutions (this school was not a state school, but a state system-affiliated school, so tuition was somewhere in between public and private level), but because it was considered public, it did not offer much in the way of scholarships, grants, etc. I ended up paying almost $6K out of pocket my first year. I just couldn’t manage my 19-credit course load and work a work-study job paying $6.25 an hour enough to make $6K.

    So, I applied to a private school close to home. In addition to my federal and state loans and grants, they also offered me a $20,000 scholarship. I went there for my remaining three years of college. The problem is, this private school is not considered a top school by any means. Sometimes I feel looked down upon because I made a wise financial choice and went with the school that gave me the best aid package instead of the school with the best name. I can honestly say it has limited some of my internship and job opportunities.

  26. Tom Messner said:

    Top-tier?
    Who is doing the effing defining?
    As far as I am concerned, you, Leigh, went to a top-tier
    college.
    Quote the
    “Messner Top-Tier College Rankings”

  27. Clarke Echols said:

    I got my bachelor degree in physics with a math minor at a small state college in southern Colorado. Only about 3000 students. I attended Colorado State University off-campus as a special-student in their Masters program in Electrical (electronic) Engineering while working at Hewlett-Packard. After 7 years as an engineer, I got tired of the politics of R&D and went to marketing on a lower pay scale as a senior technical writer. I cut my work hours by close to 1/3, and in 3-1/2 years, my salary jumped 55%.

    For 20 years as a technical writer, reclassified as an engineer 10 years after the change, I worked an average of not more than 30 hours per week. One project I did by myself for 4 years was moved to a different facility (California). I was replaced by *10 full-time engineers* who couldn’t make schedule. I made a fuss publicly. They tried a harrassment action. I was interviewed by a guy from personnel to get my side of the story.
    For 20 minutes I read him the riot act about how political correctness and laziness of employees was wrecking the company.

    About 6 years after that, I left. A manager in California wanted me punished for “being a poor team player”. All I did was tell her to figure out how to do what needed to be done when it needed to be done with the time and resources she had, instead of whining all the time about not having time and resources. My boss (also a woman)
    told me of the complaint. I decided to retire. My boss was distressed about how she was going to replace me. She left 2 months after I did. A year later, they were asking if I’d like to come back, and what it would cost. I had been replaced by three people full-time. My first replacement when I left was a graduate with a masters degree from MIT! Before retiring, I was working about 3 hours per day and holding a chair down the rest of the time.

    Where did my skills come from? A typing class and an English teacher when I was a high-school senior. We graduated 23 kids that year! One of them was US Senator Ken Salazar’s babysitter.

    Corporations are too often convenient places for lazy people to hide from performance and responsibility. Our public colleges and universities are becoming propagandizing centers instead of educational institutions, and too many of their “movers and shakers” are morons.

    I have enough experience to appreciate a *quality* education. But too many “institutions of higher learning” don’t provide much useful learning.

    I have nine children. My youngest daughter is pursuing a doctorate in audiology. My youngest son, age 26 is a senior at Colorado State U. He speaks English, French, Spanish, and Mandarin, and is currently spending a semester studying international business in Shanghai. Both of them were home schooled for their last three years of grade school before going to middle school and beyond.

    Unfortunately, too many employees of businesses who are responsible for hiring think that piece of paper is important. What’s really important is ***HOW YOU THINK***! People think they need a job, when what they need is a means for producing income. Remember: Fifteen PhDs from Harvard and Yale, plus three bucks, will buy you a Big Mac at the Golden Arches.

    Sorry about my irreverence. I worked for 30 years with top engineers from the top universities in the country, and some of them were very very good. But some didn’t have a lick of common sense. I interviewed a Masters in Electrical Engineering candidate from Iowa State University in 1976. His GPA was 3.96. He couldn’t even tell me how a simple transistor works or behaves in a simple electronic circuit!

    Find something you like to do or can learn to like to do, then figure out a way to market yourself. Your income is a reflection of the value others place on what you do for them. It need not be tied to a diploma from some fancy-dancy high-falutin university.

    I grew up on a farm. My dad got through the 9th grade. My mother had a degree in fine arts from Brigham Young University. My dad’s greatest desire was that his children be well educated. I agree. But well educated doesn’t mean you have to go to a hot-shot college. There are many good ways to gain valuable knowledge.

    Take it for what it’s worth. My wife says I’m neither outspoken, nor opinionated. :-)

    Clarke

  28. Sandy said:

    I need some major advice. I am a freshman right now in community college. But before you judge me for being in community college let me tell you my story.
    I graduated from high school 11th in my class out of 500 and took AP classes since my freshman year in high school. I graduated with a 3.8 average, so I guess you could consider me smart. I applied to a bunch of top ranked liberal arts schools and got into all of them but got hardly any money so I was forced to go to Binghamton University, a public university in New York. It’s one of the best ranked public universities in the nation but I absolutely HATED it from the moment I stepped foot there. Although it was a very good school academically the atmosphere was just depressing. I couldn’t stand it so I came back home to community college where I am now going for free. Now I’m looking for schools to transfer to and I got accepted to the University of Rhode Island, which is not a top ranked school. It’s ranked as a 3rd-tier school, but I’ve visited it many times and have come to love the campus and love the overall atmosphere. I’m getting a lot of criticism from some of my family because they think that if I go to a school that isn’t top ranked I’ll have a hard time getting jobs and I wont be successful. So I’m lost on what to do. Any advice??? If it helps, I’m planning to double major in economics and film.

  29. Kate said:

    Sandy,
    Do what is best for you. It’s no use to attend a school you find depressing. If you’re from NY like I am, I do understand how hard it is to get into Binghamton. No matter, follow your own instincts and everyone else — let them talk.

    I went to University of Maryland as an undergrad and Rensselaer for grad school (dropped out of a PhD program, but earned the M.S.).

    Frankly, I did very well in school, but found that most employers haven’t cared about my stellar grades or the name of my alma maters.

    They care whether I can do the job.

    In all, you have to build a life which satisfies you, and you alone. So follow your own instincts, dreams, heart, whatever it is.

    Best of luck to you!

    Kate

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