Do graduates of prestigious colleges earn more money?

Here's a pop college quiz.  What do the following ten colleges have in common?

1.    Carnegie Mellon
2.    Babson College
3.    Lehigh University
4.    Cal Poly San Luis Obispo
5.    Lafayette College
6.    Case Western Reserve University
7.    Manhattan College
8.    Milwaukee School of Engineering
9.    Michigan Technological University
10.  Bucknell University

Graduates from all ten earn higher median starting salaries than grads from Yale do.
Source: “2010/2011 College Salary Report.”  (sort the list by “Starting median salary”). 

Sure, some Yale grads earn gobs of money.  And starting salary isn't necessarily a measure of success or a good reason to choose a college.  But please don't tell me that grads from prestigious colleges end up more successful than grads from less famous colleges do as if that's a statement of fact.

Thanks to Arun for the link.

What’s the worst thing that could happen?

If you’re skydiving, going in for open heart surgery, or running into a burning building to save someone, the worst thing that could happen is that you could die.  That’s a pretty bad worst-case scenario.  But to my knowledge, nobody has ever died as a direct result of applying to college.  If people made more of an effort to remember that fact, a lot more families would enjoy the college admissions process instead of suffering through it as though an admissions decision from a dream school were a life or death matter.

If you’re feeling far more anxiety than you’d like to feel around the college admissions process, try this. 

First, ask yourself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen?”

If your answer is, “I/my kid might get rejected from USC” (or Yale or Amherst or whatever the dream school is) and you’re still lying awake at night over that scenario, you need to gain some perspective.  A rejection from a dream school is disappointing, but it doesn’t merit devastation, especially if you’re healthy and still going to college someplace.

If your answer is, “I might not get into any college,” or “I might not be able to go to college because I can’t afford it, congratulations.  You're assigning worry to outcomes that deserve it.  So here’s what you do to prevent it.

1. Apply to plenty of “target” and “safety” schools. 

Too many students play the admissions lottery and apply to a lot of dream schools where they don’t have a good chance of being admitted.  That’s not a smart way to play this game.  So apply to plenty of “target” and “safety” schools.   At Collegewise, we define a target school as one where the students from last year’s class who got in look very similar to you on paper.  We think you have a good shot, too.  And a safety school is one where we’re so sure you’re going to get in that we would go into cardiac arrest if you got rejected (which admittedly would be a college admissions-related life or death matter, but at least it would be happening to us, not you).

Ask your counselor to recommend some good targets and safeties, and make sure those make up at least 2/3 of your college list.  Most of the 2500 colleges in the country take pretty much everybody who applies (there are only about 100 schools that reject big chunks of their applicant pools).  So pretty much everybody can find a target or a safety school. 

2. Apply to at least one “financial safety school."

A financial safety school is one where you’re not only virtually guaranteed to get in, but you’ll also be able to pay for it even if you received no financial aid.  Again, speak with your counselor, and investigate some of your state’s public university options.

If your family doesn’t have enough money to pay for any school, refer back to tip #1 and apply to plenty of target and safety schools.  There are billions of dollars in financial aid available, and your best chance of getting it is to apply to target and safety schools that fit you well.  Your counselor is probably your best source of advice for finding those schools. 

There—you’ve probably just eliminated your “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” scenario.  So what are you so worried about?  No matter what happens, you’re not going to die from a college admissions-related accident.  Work hard and do your best—your college future is important and deserves your best effort.  But while you’re at it, try to enjoy the ride a little bit.

Can you really tell the difference between Harvard and other schools?


The American college admission system would have collapsed long ago if bright applicants were actually hurt in any lasting way by not getting into Brown and Amherst.  If you don’t think so, ask your boss or your mayor or your school superintendent where they went to college.  There are at least a hundred American universities whose academic resources are indistinguishable from Harvard’s…"

Jay Mathews
Harvard grad and author of Harvard Schmarvard

Which seniors would you bet on?

If you had to place bets on which graduating seniors were most likely to be successful in life, who would you bet on?

You'd probably bet on a high achiever, someone who spent the last four years working and succeeding like crazy.  It would likely be someone who took the hardest classes and earned the highest grades, who succeeded in their activities and made an impact on their schools.  Chances are, it's someone students and teachers like and respect, who will be missed next year.   Students like that are a good bet, and probably the one that I'd place, too.  But here's a question.

Would you change your bet if they weren't attending prestigious colleges? 

If the smartest kid at your school turned down an offer of admission from Princeton and went to Oberlin or Colorado College or Juniata, would you change your bet?  I wouldn't, and I hope you wouldn't either.

The traits those kids showed that earned your bets (and the same traits that likely got them admitted to prestigious colleges) are what will make them successful in the long run, not the names of the colleges they decide to attend.

That's what you can learn from those successful seniors.  You don't have to be a straight-A student yourself to emulate their work ethic, attitude towards learning and commitment to activities.  Develop those traits and you're going to be successful no matter where you go to college.  

Are you stressed about choosing your college?

Wise words from Jay Mathews in his post, "Stressed by choosing a college? Read these 5 tips."


Your future success doesn’t depend on whether your grandmother has heard of your college…Those prestigious colleges were good at recruiting students who had the character traits, such as persistence, humor and charm, that produced success in life. But students with those qualities who went to colleges rarely mentioned in the rankings did just as well. It is your character that makes the difference. Work hard, and all will be well."

Why your college search should look beyond just the famous schools

A student who really takes the time to do a thoughtful college search, one that looks beyond just the famous schools, ends up with three advantages.

1.  More control.

A student who applies only to famous (and competitive) colleges, then spends four months nervously crossing her fingers hoping to get in, is letting the colleges control what happens to her.  The student whose list is more balanced, with the majority of the schools being those where she has a good chance of admission, has much more control over her college future.  Even if you apply to 1-2 dream schools that seem out of your reach, it's a lot less stressful to go through the process when you know that you're virtually guaranteed to have options at the end of it.

2.  Better results.

When you do a thoughtful college search, your chances of getting in improve–even at the famous schools.  Lots of colleges ask questions on their applications and in interviews about why you're applying to that particular school.  You can't give a good answer just by reciting facts you learned on the school's website.  You have to tell them more about you, what you expect from your college experience, and why this particular school is one place where you think you could do it.  Students who've really considered their college future and investigated a lot of different colleges tend to have the best answers to those questions.

3.  A better college future.

Of course, you want to be happy wherever you go to college.  And while there are no guarantees with any big decision in life, the more time and thought you give to your college choices, the more likely you will be to end up at one that is the perfect fit for you. 

What teenagers can learn from a forty year old

I turned 40 last weekend.  And in what had to be one of the best nights of my life, I got to celebrate with pretty much every person who's important to me.  Seeing all those great friends, taking stock of my life at 40 and how it's shaped up, reminded me of something every high school student applying to college should know because I think you'll have a similar experience 20+ years from now at your fortieth birthday party.

Just about everything great in my life, from my friends, to my partner, to my career, can somehow be traced back to college.  And none of it could have been predicted before then.

Some of the people at the party were friends I made in college and have known for 20 years.  Others I met during my time working at The Princeton Review after graduating, a full-time job I never would have gotten had I not started working there part time as an SAT teacher my junior year of college.  And not surprisingly, others came from the work we've done together during the last 11 years since I started Collegewise, an 11 years that never would have happened without my experience at The Princeton Review and the mentor I found there who believed in me and told me I could do this.  

My life would be completely, unrecognizably different had I gone to college someplace other than UC Irvine.  But I had absolutely no idea that any of this was going to happen when I signed my Statement of Intent to Register back in April of 1989.    

All the work you're doing to get into college is incredibly important.  The world rewards people who have high expectations for their lives and are willing to work to meet those expectations. 

But someday, you're going to turn 40.  And how your life looks then will have just about nothing to do with your SAT scores or whether or not your dream college said yes.  Your life will be defined but what you do once you get to college and what you keep doing once you leave.  It's going to be defined by the people you meet and whether or not you treat them right.  It's going to be defined by what you learn about yourself when you discover what you're good at (and what you're not-so-good at).  It's going to be defined by your ambition, how hard you work, and whether or not you have the guts to take advantage of the opportunities that present themselves to you.

The day a college says Yes or No is just one day.  It's the next 8,000 days that will determine the life you have at 40 and the people who are in it.

A Stanford grad with a lot left to learn

I got a call once from a graduating senior at Stanford asking about our "engineering opening."

I told him we didn't have an engineering opening, and it became clear pretty fast that someone in their career center had goofed and listed our job opening incorrectly.

But this Stanford grad just refused to believe it.  No matter how I explained to him that we do college counseling, not engineering, and that someone in the Stanford office must have made an error, he just got more defiant and told me, "I have the listing right here in front of me."  He wasn't just misinformed; he was rude about it (and I thought I was actually being pretty nice). 

When he said, "OK, can you put me on with your manager since you don't seem to know much about the position?", I told him I was the manger and gave up trying to help him.

The point here is not that Stanford grads aren't bright (for you Cal Bears who might be reading this).  The point is there are certain things that GPAs, test scores and degrees from prestigious universities don't measure. This guy had to be smart to go to Stanford and major in engineering, but he was clearly lacking some people skills that he's going to need to get a job. 

Don't assume that you need a degree from a prestigious college to be successful.  And if you get to attend a prestigious school, don't assume that you've got nothing left to learn.

What you do vs. where you go

From Tuesday's New York Times


The key to success in college and beyond has more to do with what students do with their time during college than where they choose to attend. A long-term study of 6,335 college graduates published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that graduating from a college where entering students have higher SAT scores — one marker of elite colleges — didn't pay off in higher post-graduation income. Researchers found that students who applied to several elite schools but didn't attend them — either because of rejection or by their own choice — are more likely to earn high incomes later than students who actually attended elite schools.

Make sure you read that last sentence carefully. That was new information to me.  And believe me, I'll be repeating it.