Saturday, May 27, 2006

On Elite Colleges and Success

In high school, I attended a prestigious magnet program where many of my fellow students were admitted to top-tier colleges like Stanford, MIT, and the Ivy League schools. On the other hand, I accepted a scholarship to my state school, the University of Maryland, where I just completed the second year of my undergraduate program. Although I am completely satisfied with my decision and I love being at UMD, I have often wondered what the impact on my life would be had I gone somewhere else.

I consider talent and hard work to be more important than any other factor as a determinant of success. Yet I can certainly see the advantages of going to a big brand-name school. Especially as a finance major I can see the benefits of having an established network, prestigious background, and a cohort of fellow successful students. That is why, I'll admit, I have long planned on getting an MBA from a Wharton or Harvard-level program.

It was interesting, then, to come across this article, which states that among "equally talented students who applied to the nation's most elite institutions", those who were accepted and those who were rejected and wound up going to less selective schools were earning the same income twenty years later! (Reader reactions to the article were also interesting; Laura Rowley also points out that only 10 percent of the Fortune 500 CEOs have Ivy League undergraduate degrees. Though that number is not that small, and I would bet the total rises when including postgraduate degrees.)

The truth, as I see it, is probably that those of us who attend a school of lesser renown will have to work a lot harder initially to be on an equal footing with our colleagues at top-tier schools. After that, I trust, a successful career path is available to those who can seize the opportunity. There is where I hope the experience of having to work harder will give students like myself an advantage.

If I needed any further reminder of the importance of scoring a great job upon graduating, Aplia EconBlog discusses an article in Thursday's New York Times on getting a good start. According to the Times writer, "Graduates' first jobs have an inordinate impact on their career path and their 'future income stream,' as economists refer to a person's earnings over a lifetime." Aplia's William Chiu says that if you start out behind, you will perpetually be behind.

The central question remains though: what route offers the best method of landing the great job? More specifically, what specific advantages does a top-tier education have and are they a determining factor in assuring career success?

I'm interested in hearing from those of you who from both sides of the aisle. Tell me what you think.


Andrew said...

An interesting question you have there. My honors seminar, The University as a Cultural Institution, touched on this subject. As I'm sure you're aware of, UMD has several "peer institutions" and "aspirational peer institutions." Basically, schools that we are either simliar to, say a Penn State, and schools that we aim to be like, such as UVA. Both of those schools are public, state schools, and both are essentially the falgship school in the state, much like UMD is in Maryland. The difference in these schools is all about prestige. I remeber back to junior/senior year of high school and thinking about college selections. Everyone I talked to said that UVA was one of the hardest schools to get into and was like a public ivy. Which of course speaks to both the program and Virginia and the power and prestige of Ivy League schools.

Bascially because of thier the reputation that they have built for themselves through the generations, Ivy League schools and elite schools such as Duke, UVa, MIT, what have you are just universally known as "good schools." Those that have come before from those schools have left indelible marks in the world. In the same way, the graduates from Maryland who leave positive marks in the real world only serve to enhance my diploma. Because for all the resume writing and curriculm vitae that you give to an employer, the person isn't going to really look over what classes you took. They look at "Oh, Smith School of Business. They're pretty good. He seems like a solid hire."

It's not so much about what you know as it's about who you know, or in this case, who you represent.

Dennis said...

Hey man, thanks for the email. I was just at UMCP last week after my trip to DC. My friends there hit up the Chipotle like no other haha.

I was in a similar situation as an IB student in high school. UF was a much cheaper option than going to some big school, which was a big factor in my decision.

I've definitely made the most out of my experience at UF and probably would not have gotten that opportunity elsewhere. I advise you to do the same.

And those big MBA programs like it when you have work experience anyway, so hit up the corporate world/small businesses, and make some money. Then snagg a trip to Wharton. haha. Good Luck!

Goutham said...

It seems to me that when it comes to career matters, it might be the area in which the school you go to actually does matter. This is certainly true of graduate programs, but even at the undergraduate level the upper-tier schools have more famous and influential faculty members, more resources for getting involved in research (although UMD is probably comparable in this aspect) and just better name recognition. As far as getting a better education, I think you need to look to the schools like St. John's whose aim is still to transmit some general curriculum that is not oriented simply to getting out in four years into the job market at 80k a year, as sexy as that sounds. The Ivies have undergone the same curricular anarchy as all the other major universities in this country, so learning is more or less a matter of personal motivation.