There is a prevailing myth that where you go to college is the most important predictor of success in life. This time of year, high school seniors are making their final choices about what college to attend in the fall, and I worry that their belief system says top tier college or bust. The truth is, where you go to college doesn’t really matter in terms of life earnings, happiness or fulfillment.
Of the CEOs in Fortune magazine’s list of top 100 companies, only 12 attended an Ivy League school. Surprised? This finding is consistent with Pulitzer Prize winners in journalism, MacArthur Foundation’s ‘Genius Grant’ recipients, and leaders in science and engineering. The top people in these fields went to a mix of public and private colleges and top tier and small liberal arts schools, demonstrating that there is no one path to success.
C. Douglas McMillon, president and CEO of Walmart Inc., the No. 1 ranked company on the Fortune 500 list, is a graduate of the University of Arkansas. McMillon began working at Walmart in 1984 to pay for college, unloading trucks at a distribution center as a high school student before gradually ascending to the top of the corporate ladder in 2014. Warren Buffett graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, is the only Ivy League graduate (Princeton) leading a top 10 company.
Yet there is an Ivy League mythology that has spawned an
ever-growing industry of test prep classes, camps and publications. News stories about parents cheating to get their kids into top universities underscore how college admissions have become so cutthroat and competitive. These stories also are a reminder of the inequality in our country’s college admissions process.
The pressure to live up to this unrealistic standard has become like an arms race. Starting in childhood, kids have been pushed into competing on the best club sports teams, being the best, attaining straight As and being popular. The focus on attending a top university is an outgrowth of kids being conditioned to focus on fame, prestige, winning, name brand clothes and, in the end, a name brand college. I have counseled many a high school senior who felt like a failure because they weren’t accepted into an elite university.
Research repeatedly has shown that college matters: Graduates are more likely than nongraduates to be employed, earn good salaries, be happy and live longer. But many studies also have documented that grades and where you go to college have little predictive value for future earnings or levels of well-being.
You can’t measure a high school student by their GPA or test scores, nor can you evaluate a college grad by what school they attended or their grades. What is harder to measure, but far more important, is a young adult’s level of grit, optimism, integrity, people skills, street smarts and determination. Employers love applicants who have demonstrated the ability to grab onto an interest and pursue it with passion and determination. I met a woman a few years ago who owns a company that manufactures airplanes. Like other employers, she’s looking for well-rounded grads with people skills. If developing these qualities is our intention for young adults entering college and the workforce, then we need to shift our focus starting in childhood.
As a parent, be conscious of what you value and where you put your energy. Teach your kids that why they are choosing a college is more important than where they end up. How they live their college experience is also more valuable than the name of the university they attend. Have the courage to swim against the tide of parents and an educational system obsessed with the elite college myth.
Tim Jordan, M.D., is a behavioral pediatrician who works with girls in grade school through college. Check out his new online course, Parenting girls: The challenges girls face today with their feelingsand friends and what they need, at drtimjordan.com.