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.