Getting into an elite college is more cutthroat than ever. Ivy League institutions like Harvard and Yale, and top universities like Stanford and MIT have around a 7.4% admission rate for a pool of around 40,000 applicants. Similarly, small, top liberal arts colleges like Amherst and Bowdoin accept less than 15% of over 8,000 applicants every year.
So is getting into one of these schools an indication of your success and your shot at landing an enviable, lucrative job when you graduate?
A new book suggests that life success is not tied to the college you went to, opening up a fierce debate about whether the stress that teenagers go through in order to get accepted by the “right” school is worth the strew.
In “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be,” New York Times columnist Frank Bruni lays out a simple message for high school students. Through analysis and anecdotes, Bruni suggests that what school you end up at matters far less than what you do once you get there. What really matters in the end are your efforts in and out of the classroom, not the cache of your fancy diploma.
The book argues that there are many people who have found success without going to an Ivy League school or selective college. Bruni’s figures conclude that only 30 of the top 100 firms in the Fortune 500 have CEOs who attended elite schools.
That’s now up for debate. An extended analysis from 1996 to 2014 by Jonathan Wai dug deeper, looking at all the Fortune 500 companies. The article uncovered that over the last two decades “roughly 38% of Fortune 500 CEOs attended elite schools.” In addition, Wai looked at billionaires, attendees of the World Economic Forum in Davos, and the world’s most powerful men and women (according to Forbes magazine) and found that 4.8% of billionaires, 85.2% of powerful men, 55.9% of powerful women, and 63.7% of Davos attendees went to elite schools. As Wai concludes:
“It is without question that at least for the people who currently control a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth and power, a college education — and specifically an elite college education — appears important in some way”
The Washington Post agrees:
“Let’s generously assume that the set of Ivy League and equivalently selective colleges comprise about 100 colleges in the nation. When you compare that to the total number of 4-year colleges in the nation – which is well over 2000 – one finds that less than 5% of all 4-year colleges in the nation (100/2000+) has produced a whopping 30% of the CEO’s at the largest 100 firms of the Fortune 500, for a relative likelihood of over 6X. Hence, far from demonstrating that top colleges do not matter, Bruni’s evidence ironically indicates that top colleges matter immensely.”
The argument here is whether or not the school you do go to might actually help open doors for you along the way. The Post claims that the right school will serve you better in the future, pointing out that recruiters for top jobs on Wall Street or other competitive fields often target, and only look at, graduates of the Ivys and Little Ivies.
Bruni tries to dispel that notion by arguing that schools don’t matter. It might be true that getting your first break depends on where you went, but once you land it, down the line that won’t matter so much. That’s because you’ll learn specialized skills in your field and build up industry contacts while on the job.
In fact, last year’s Gallup-Purdue Index surveyed 30,000 graduates on their careers and concluded that success relies less on where you go to college than how you go to college.
So even if the college admissions frenzy is unlikely to change anytime soon, take to heart the fact that you should enjoy our time in school no matter where you end up, and use it as a place to learn not just in the classroom, but also outside of it.