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You are here: Home Section Table Parenting View From the Sideline: What You Learn In College is More Important Than Where You Go
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View From the Sideline: What You Learn In College is More Important Than Where You Go

GradFieldAs virtually every parent of a Scarsdale High School senior knows, December is the month each year when students learn whether they have been accepted to the college to which they’ve applied for admission under early decision. It is a time of exhilaration for some and heightened anxiety and disappointment for others. More than ever these days, students apply “ED” to their first choice schools, for two primary reasons. First, they believe that applying ED maximizes the chance for admission at their first choice school and second, they hope to complete their college application process early, avoiding the need to apply regular decision to multiple colleges and in most cases, having to wait until the spring to learn where they have been accepted. Most people who have been through the college application process know that it is stressful for all involved. Make that very stressful. The high achieving, competitive environment in which we raise our kids in Scarsdale only makes things worse.

I’m here to pronounce that those Scarsdale students and their parents who are experiencing the anxiety associated with the college application process should exhale. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, recent studies show that a student’s future career success, measured by earnings, is only marginally, if at all, tied to the prestige of the institution of higher learning that he or she attends. This premise is supported out by a recent study that was recently reported on by the well-respected publication, The Atlantic.

I’ll start with a disclaimer. For purposes of this column, career success is equated with earnings. I fully recognize and appreciate that far more goes into defining career success than income, including personal satisfaction and fulfillment and the benefits the work confers upon society.

We can all acknowledge that top tier schools in the United States, defined by those schools that admit students with the strongest academic credentials and have the lowest acceptance rates, not only provide high quality instruction. They provide a lifetime network of well-connected alumni and send a message to future employers that the student is bright and motivated. And there’s no avoiding that top tier schools seem disproportionately responsible for turning out America’s highest achievers. About 45 percent of America’s billionaires attended schools where incoming freshmen average in the top first percentile of standardized test scores.

So where’s the rub? According to a 2002 study by the well-known economist Alan Krueger, the increase in earnings from going to a top school is “generally indistinguishable from zero” after adjusting for student characteristics, such as standardized test scores. Translated, this means that if two students have the same standardized test scores and apply to the same colleges, but one gets into Harvard or another elite school and the other attends a state university with relatively high acceptance rates, they can expect to earn the same income throughout their careers. The study further showed that the average standardized scores of all the schools a student applies to is a better predictor of future success, measured by income, than the school that the student actually attends. This “non-Harvard effect” is most pronounced for white males. It is less pronounced for women, but according to a recent study by economists at Virginia Tech, Tulane and the University of Virginia, the reason why women who attend elite schools tend to earn more than women who don’t is not because women who attend elite schools earn higher hourly wages. Rather, it’s because they tend to get married later in life and delay having children, and therefore stay in the workforce longer and work more hours. The reasons for this phenomenon can be debated. The “Harvard effect” has been shown to be most apparent among lower income students, many of whom are minorities. Why? The most likely theory I’ve seen is that the networks created at elite institutions have proportionately the greatest impact on less affluent students who tend to be less well-connected than students who have grown up in wealthy areas where established, professional networks already exist among friends and family.

For the majority of Scarsdale High School students, the best indicator of career success, measured by earnings, is the student’s academic performance and achievements at age 18, rather than which college the student attends. Yes, attending an elite institution can open doors when a student is applying for her first job, and there’s certainly a lifetime prestige factor in attending a college that is equated with having the brightest students and the highest quality education. But to the extent Scarsdale students and their parents believe that where the student attends college is going to dictate the students’ career outcome as measured by earning power, it’s time to chill out. It’s less about where the person goes to college than it is about what that person accomplishes once he or she is in college. And then, perhaps the biggest factor is how the person performs once he or she is a member of the workforce. In the aggregate, a person’s individual qualities overwhelm institutional characteristics and it’s more important to be hardworking, industrious and curious than to have “Harvard” on one’s college diploma.

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