The One Big Lie About College Decision Season

The earnings boost from having gone to a top school is “indistinguishable from zero” for most people.
Where you go to college can have an effect on your career -- but it will not define you.
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Where you go to college can have an effect on your career -- but it will not define you.

On Sunday, high school seniors across the U.S. will face a nerve-wracking decision. May 1 is National College Decision Day, when prospective students must commit to the college they’ll attend in the fall.

I applied for college approximately one million years ago, but I’ll never forget the sleepless nights of waiting for acceptance envelopes and agonizing over pro/con lists. At the time, it felt like the world would end if I made the wrong decision. Now, with the benefit of hindsight, I recognize that the college I chose definitely influenced me ― but it did not define my career.

However, the pressure, and the fear of making the wrong choice, are still the same for lots of students today.

The biggest myth is that if you make a choice out of high school that isn’t the best fit for you, somehow that’s going to translate to lack of success for the rest of your life,” said Steve Schneider, a school counselor at Sheboygan South High School in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. “That’s the biggest fear [for students] ... ‘I’m going to make a choice that dooms me for the rest of my my life.’”

Too often, parents and society contribute to that pressure, because there’s a belief that where someone goes to college reflects something deeper about their character. Becky Munsterer Sabky, a former admissions director for Dartmouth and author of “Valedictorians at the Gate: Standing Out, Getting In, and Staying Sane While Applying to College,” said she’s seen students believe they weren’t good enough after not getting into highly selective schools, and parents who see admission as a prize their child deserves for all the sacrifices and hard work it took to get this far.

“I think we fixate on ‘What’s the most elitist club? And I better say yes to them, because they chose me,’” Sabky said. “We are all guilty of that. We want the thing we can’t have.”

Does the choice really matter for your future success? Let’s dispels some myths and put that college choice in perspective, with research-backed insights about the future payoff and advice from college and admissions counselors who have seen it all.

Top colleges provide a salary boost to some people, but they aren’t a strong predictor of financial success.

Here’s what the research has found: For the most part, college isn’t a major influencing factor on a person’s salary later in life. But for underrepresented minorities, it actually can make a big difference.

Does “success” means reaching the top 1% of earnings? A 2017 study led by the economist Raj Chetty found that students from low-income backgrounds had a much higher chance of getting to that 1% club in their 30s if they went to Columbia University versus the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

But in general, where someone got a degree doesn’t play a huge role in their salary. In 2002, economists Alan Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale published a study that compared the earnings of graduates of elite colleges with graduates of schools that were less selective. After controlling for student characteristics like SAT scores, they found that the earnings boost from having attended an elite school was “indistinguishable from zero.”

In other words, according to Krueger and Dale’s research, if two students, Maria and Jill, have the same SAT scores, and Maria goes to a highly selective college while Jill is rejected and goes to a less selective university, their earnings will still be the same.

In 2011, there was a follow-up study on Krueger and Dale’s research that looked at administrative earnings data from students who’d graduated in 1989. Job incomes were again largely unaffected by whether students went to selective schools like Tulane University, the University of Pennsylvania, Williams College or Yale University. The researchers did find, however, that there was a noticeable salary boost down the line for Black and Latinx students who’d attended highly selective institutions. The researchers suggest this was because those schools provided networks to these students that white or well-schooled families may have already had.

“While most students who apply to selective colleges may be able to rely on their families and friends to provide job-networking opportunities, networking opportunities that become available from attending a selective college may be particularly valuable for Black and Hispanic students, and for students from less educated families,” the study concluded.

What really matters is taking advantage of opportunities by networking at your school, regardless of which one it is, said Gorick Ng, a career adviser at Harvard University and the author of “The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right.”

“People like to say that ‘it’s not what you know, but who you know.’ It’s true, especially when it comes to getting a job. Different programs will be feeders into different institutions,” Ng said. “Brand names aside, you want to know that your school has a history of placing graduates into the types of jobs and organizations you are interested in.”

But often, what you think you want to be at 18 years old turns out to be totally different four years later. That’s normal, too.

“If you are coming up on May 1st and you are agonizing over ‘What if I make the wrong choice?’ ― just try to reframe that,” Schneider said. “I don’t think there’s a wrong choice. You might end up changing things, but that doesn’t mean you made the wrong choice. Whatever your first step was, you may need to pivot from [it]. That’s a really normal occurrence for a lot of people.”

Of course, Schneider also finds that for some of his students, not going to college is a viable next option after high school. “Going directly into [the] workforce doesn’t mean that you don’t continue to learn things,” he said, noting that manufacturing is a major industry in his area. “It’s not as though because you start on the line at 18, which is probably where you are going to start, it doesn’t mean that that is where you are going to stay ... Success is a long haul. We’re talking about 40 years [of working].”

Sometimes what you majored in, and what you learned in classes, helps you get a job ― and sometimes it doesn’t. Take it from adults surveyed by the Pew Research Group in 2016 about their college experiences. Two-thirds of people with a postgraduate degree said their college education was “very useful” in opening doors to job opportunities, but only 56% of those with a four-year degree and 40% of those with a two-year degree said the same.

Ultimately, regardless of what you earn at your first jobs out of high school and college, the questions of what’s fulfilling in terms of personal development and what leads to an interesting career are more nuanced.

“If you are meeting all kinds of interesting people, and you are trying new majors, and you are understanding who you are as a person, and you really feel good about your college experience, I would suggest that that is going to be more important towards your eventual success than, ‘Oh, I went to this school and was miserable for four years, and didn’t really learn anything about myself because I never wanted to leave my room, but oh my God, I have this Ivy League degree,’” said Danny Ruderman, an independent college counselor who has coached thousands of students into college, including Snap Inc. CEO Evan Spiegel.

Your college can get you noticed, but what employers actually want are your skills and your ability to work in a team.

Last year, the Association of American Colleges and Universities surveyed nearly 500 executives and hiring managers from businesses and found that the top skill the majority of the employers valued was the ability to work in a team, and the ability to show breadth and depth of knowledge.

Thankfully, those are skills you can gain, regardless of where you went to college or even if you didn’t go at all. Reviews were mixed on the value of that degree in the workplace, anyway. While hiring managers and executives under 40 years old in the survey saw college graduates as “very prepared” in skills like using statistics and working effectively in teams, those aged 50 and above were much less likely to believe that a college degree prepared graduates for working at their company.

This underscores the fact that yes, certain colleges do sometimes get your resume that second glance ― but employers are way more interested in the experiences you bring to the table and how you sell them.

“Success follows the person. It doesn’t follow the institution, it doesn’t follow the place of employment,” Schneider said. “All of those things are just venues for a person to be successful in, but that success is dictated by what that person puts into it. My conversation [with students] will always come back to: Success is related to you, the kid. And I’d rather put the focus on that.”

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