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What are the Lifetime Advantages of Attending Top Colleges

NorthstarmomNorthstarmom Registered User Posts: 24,853 Senior Member
edited December 2006 in Parents Forum
In seeing the desperation expressed often on CC by students and their parents who aspire to HPYS and similar educations and who sometimes are willing to take out loans exceeding $20,000 a year to do so, I am wondering what exactly are the parents and students hoping to accomplish by attaining such educations.

Are such colleges viewed as tickets to becoming rich? If so, my guess is that the students/parents will be disappointed because from what I've seen, many of the rich people who went to HPYS were born into rich families. Others chose professions that allowed them to become reasonably well off such as being doctors or corporate lawyers. In many cases, they could have attained similar professions/wealth by getting top grades at a less highy ranked college and then going to law school or medical school. Students who aspire to be social workers, teachers, ministers, nonprofit directors aren't likely to become rich no matter what colleges they attend.

Are the colleges viewed as having connections that will pay off? I imagine that if one lives or plans to live in D.C., Boston, Philadelphia or NYC, being an Ivy grad will pay off in terms of being able to meet lots of influential people at alumni club meetings. However, as a person who in addition to having lived in D.C. has also lived in several places far from the Ivy towers, I can say that perhaps in most states, those who have attended state flagship U often have far more connections than do Ivy alum simply because of the size of state flagship u.

For example, where I live is a medium sized college town far from Ivies and similar colleges. The people running the local colleges and the city government as well as our major places of work are virtually all graduates of state flagship U or the state public that is the flagship wannabe. The few Ivy grads tend to teach at the universities, and have little power or influence locally.

Is it an a guaranteed excellent academic education? Nope. College is basically what you make it. Many of the Ivies and similar colleges aren't known for their excellence of teaching. True, one may be able to take classes with more Nobel Prize winners than the typical university has. However, that doesn't mean that one will be mentored by them. One probably has a far better chance of getting mentored by an expert by attending a less renowned college known for its nurturing and teaching excellence. Lots of the education at places like HPYS is what one learns by interacting with large groups of peers who are creative, brilliant, independent, etc. This is wonderful for people who best learn through peer interaction. It's not the optimal learning situation for people who best learn through close relationships with nurturing faculty.

Incidentally, I'm a Harvard grad who is glad that I went to Harvard. What has stood me well for a lifetime is the exposure to such fascinating peers who felt that they could do anything. Their hubris about being willing to try anything, and Harvard's allowing them to do that, broadened my perspective forever about what's possible for me and others. I also left Harvard with a lifetime commitment to community service, something that virtually all students there do by choice.

I chose not to enter high paying fields, so I'm not rich (which doesn't bother me). I live in a part of the country that values State Flagship U and State Flagship Wannabee, so my Harvard degree doesn't give me connections where I live. My thoughts are that students in my area who center their lives around getting into Harvard and whose parents take out second mortgages to finance Harvard may feel that they got a bad deal if the students return after graduation to this city because they'll notice that the people who have the connections, respect and power are the ones who had the low priced education at State Flagship and State Flagship Wannabee.
Post edited by Northstarmom on

Replies to: What are the Lifetime Advantages of Attending Top Colleges

  • minimini Registered User Posts: 26,431 Senior Member
    My experience (as you know) - Williams, Oxford, UChicago - is virtually the same as yours.

    "What has stood me well for a lifetime is the exposure to such fascinating peers who felt that they could do anything. Their hubris about being willing to try anything, and Harvard's allowing them to do that, broadened my perspective forever about what's possible for me and others.

    Could have written that myself. (I think I did! ;)
  • anitawanitaw . Posts: 433 Member
    Because of where I live and what I do my elite collegiate affiliations are of consistent significance 25+years after graduation. They matter in that the establish immediate viability that what I say might be credible. Then I have to follow through. Not great wealth, great fame or great 'contacts'(in the professionally useful sense).

    But, my children are being raised in a different life and different world than I. I would NEVER have predicted 25+ years ago where life would have taken me. I can safely say that there is no aspect of my life I could have anticipated, in fact!! So, that said, I have no idea what the significance of attending a given college will have for my children ultimately. The 'lifetime advantages' to them will probably(hopefully??) entirely different for them than they might anticipate, just as mine are for me.

    My short term focus when I chose where to attend college was to have a stimulating and rich learning and living environment- and I did. My children's goals were much the same- and they do, too.
  • ADadADad Registered User Posts: 4,921 Senior Member
    As to earnings, economists Alan Kreuger and Stacy Berg Dale looked at students who were accepted at Ivies but decided to go to less selective schools. Those students earned just as much as students who went to Ivies. This result supports the idea that it is the student, not the college, that determines future financial success.

    This study is discussed at http://www.brookings.edu/views/articles/20040902easterbrook.htm, as well as other places that can be found by Googling.

    Of course, this is just one study, using students from the 1970s. Like most things in economics, one would need a wide range of more of less consistent studies to be reasonably confident of a result. And, an economist would also have to ask the question, "Why, if an Ivy education is at best financially meaningless, do so many families turn heaven and earth to try to get one?" Whatever the reasons are, there do still appear to be some perceived advantages, perhaps nonfinancial, such as those mentioned by Northstarmom and mini, that make people willing (for better or worse) to buy these services.

    And, also note the delicious irony that mention of this study usually begins with "Princeton economist Alan Kreuger..."
  • dstarkdstark Registered User Posts: 34,241 Senior Member
    "What has stood me well for a lifetime is the exposure to such fascinating peers who felt that they could do anything. Their hubris about being willing to try anything, and Harvard's allowing them to do that, broadened my perspective forever about what's possible for me and others."

    Is this possible only at an elite college?
  • monydadmonydad Registered User Posts: 7,938 Senior Member
    IMO, the expected lifetime benefits would be as follows:

    1) People who don't know you personally will presume that you are smart.

    2) you can forever feel good about this achievement. Especially when someone seems impressed by it.

    3) You might have more alumni functions available in your area (though not nearly as good as the local state u), and a better alumni magazine. At least that's been my limited experience.

    A small percentage of grads will accrue lifetime advantage if they choose to enter, and stay in, certain industries that seem enamored with pedigree. These include some of the highest-paying fields, such as big-time law, big-time consulting, and investment banking. It's hard to get jobs in these fields altogether without the "right" background.

    However, most grads do not enter these few diploma-advantaged fields.

    Most of the other benefits are of shorter expected duration, or are more ephemeral.

    For example, the presumption of intelligence may help you land a job or two. However, long-term it is your actual demonstrated capabilties in the workplace that will be most relevant. And at many of these jobs your coworkers, who got the same job you did, will be graduates of state universities who did well there.

    Your student cohort will consist uniformly of high -achievers; whether that's better for you, in a material way, can be a matter of opinion. "Big fish" vs. "small fish". The large state universities will have great numbers of high-achievers also; just not as high a percentage.

    FWIW, I attended Cornell. I've moved around a bit in the workforce over the years. I had one job where pedigree made a big difference. The others it made no difference whatsoever, and may actually have been a negative. ( sort of a "who does he think he is? kind of backlash effect). Most of the people I've reported to over the years have been graduates of state universities.

    In the (midwest) area I just moved from, the local state u's were far superior backgrounds for networking and jobs.
  • minimini Registered User Posts: 26,431 Senior Member
    "Is this possible only at an elite college?"

    For me, it came from being around rich classmates. Theoretically, I expect that it MIGHT have happened had I been around similarly mega-wealthy classmates at Muskogie State, and had Muskogie State seen itself as catering to said clientele.
  • -Allmusic--Allmusic- Registered User Posts: 6,350 Senior Member
    I have a career that calls for me to post my diplomas on the wall of my office. I must confess that I am never sorry to have the two I do hanging there. Would it me make me less of a person, less of a professional, without those two rather elite degrees? No, but it doesn't hurt at all to have them.

    I do none of the networking that I hear goes on as the graduate of an elite college or grad school, but that is my fault, since I am shy and do not avail myself of the opportunities.

    My DS is exceptionally bright and a good student, so could apply to either my alma maters; however, he is interested in only music, and thus will be going in another direction altogether, and one that is away from Ivy League. Has made me really shift my thinking to what HE wants, vs what I assumed would be his path, given the educational pattern of his parents.
  • NorthstarmomNorthstarmom Registered User Posts: 24,853 Senior Member
    Me: "What has stood me well for a lifetime is the exposure to such fascinating peers who felt that they could do anything. Their hubris about being willing to try anything, and Harvard's allowing them to do that, broadened my perspective forever about what's possible for me and others."

    Stark "Is this possible only at an elite college?"

    Having taught and spent a lot of time at second/third tier public universities, my answer is "yes."

    What differentiates the most competitive colleges from the other colleges is that the most competitive colleges have such an overabundance of students with high stats that they can choose students who also demonstrate the passion, creativity and independence to pursue their interests. Because the students at the top universities are so smart and highly motivated (graduation rates range from about 80%-97%), the faculty and administration doesn't have to concentrate on making sure that students graduate. That's typically not a worry.

    Instead, the faculty/administration can focus on creating a campus atmosphere that literally allows students to run with their talents and interests.

    An example: In the student newspapers of the second/third tier colleges that I advised, the faculty was telling journalism majors not to work to hard at the student newspapers because their gpas may be hurt. These were students who were putting in perhaps 15 hours max a week to produce thin weekly newspapers. The students also often were getting class credit for the work they did at the papers. Depending on the school, some of the students were getting paid $1,000-$5,000 a semester for their work.

    By comparison, Harvard produces a daily newspaper, and students spend up to 30 hours a week in unpaid positions to produce the newspaper. None of the students are journalism majors. Most get no pay. Most do not plan to enter journalism careers. They get no course credit for their work. They have to compete to get unpaid jobs at the student paper, and hundreds of students try out for those jobs. They do this for the pure joy of it.

    The same would be true of students involved in music, intramurals, community service, theater, etc. Virtually all would be self motivated and doing it for the pure fun of it.

    This isn't most people's idea of fun. The Ivies (probably particularly H,Y) are filled with students whose idea of fun is doing activities that others would regard as work or things to do simply to fill one's resume, fulfill course credit or to be able to get a job.

    Most other campuses are more likely to have a preponderance of solitary intellectuals or students who are in college mainly in order to eventually get a good job. "Fun" to them may be heading to a campus football game, frat party or something similar, not doing something like directing a play or producing a musical. That, to them would be work -- something to do only for class, and to do up to the level that would get them the grade that they desire.
  • garlandgarland Registered User Posts: 16,063 Senior Member
    "What has stood me well for a lifetime is the exposure to such fascinating peers who felt that they could do anything. Their hubris about being willing to try anything, and Harvard's allowing them to do that, broadened my perspective forever about what's possible for me and others."

    Is this possible only at an elite college?

    I started school at a fairly run-of-the-mill LAC, where there was little intellectual curiosity or sense of possibilities. But most students there had more money than I did.

    I transfered to UMIch, much more "elite" in my mind than the school I came from, but much less wealthy students for the most part. But I definitely got the sense of being surrounded by fascinating, brilliant, motivated students who had a sense of being able to do anything, that I didn't get at the previous school. So I don't think it's just about who had more money, and I don't think elite just means HYPS.

    As far as NSM's question, we were willing to send our kids to a top LAC and an Ivy because of the sense of the experience they would get. We have no interest in them making a bunch of money; D, the Phi Beta Kappa LAC grad, is working as a canvasser for an environmental organization, alongside people without college degrees. We have no problem with that. The things my S has learned at his school flabbergast me; I truly don't think there are many places where he could get that education.

    The Kreguer and Dale study has always gotten a big yawn out of me, because it's never been about the money for us. It's a sense of who you are, what you can do, what possibilities there are in life. And a lot of that comes from your fellow students.
  • tsdadtsdad Registered User Posts: 4,035 Senior Member
    I have posted my "diplomas" on the wall. What really counts to the people I deal with are the certificates from the Department of Justice and the Office for Civil Rights.

    Who you are is much more important than where you went to school. If you are lazy, mean-spirited, and not a team player no one will want to work with you. No one will care where you went to school if you are an incompetent a-hole. If you're not, all they care about is whether you can do the job.
  • Teach2005Teach2005 Registered User Posts: 228 Junior Member
    I think this is a great question and would agree that it really depends on where you live. In both states where I have lived I have known very few people who graduated from Ivy League schools. (In fact I can't think of any off the top of my head..but I'm saying not many because surely there were some that I just didn't know.) I knew one person the entire time I was in high school who even applied to an Ivy League and she got into and attended Penn. I didn't even know it was in the Ivy League at the time and I really wondered why she was going all the way to Pennsylvania for school.

    I grew up in an educated community that contained a university and a small religious college. However, the networking and connections were mainly from SEC and ACC schools. I've been asked numerous times in job interviews about my schooling but it's because they attended the same state school as myself or wanted to know which of the state SEC schools I attended. I would agree that our government officials, company presidents, lawyers, doctors, etc. mostly attended state schools. My closest friend from high school works in the political arena in DC and landed her job because of LSU connections. I may not have two prestigious degrees to put on my wall, but I have three from state institutions and I guarantee that because of where I live I draw just as many comments on those.
  • idadidad Registered User Posts: 5,028 Senior Member
    Whereas undergraduate origin is of some interest, for many fields it is often the graduate degree that gains the most acknowledgment. I know the undergrad school affiliation of few of my colleagues, I know the grad school affiliation of nearly all of them.
  • MomwaitingfornewMomwaitingfornew Registered User Posts: 5,821 Senior Member
    ""Fun" to them may be heading to a campus football game, frat party or something similar, not doing something like directing a play or producing a musical. That, to them would be work -- something to do only for class, and to do up to the level that would get them the grade that they desire."

    Wow. This never occurred to me, but Northstarmom is completely right. At my Ivy League alma mater, I often worked 40 hours/week in the theater (for free!) in addition to taking extra classes and working a paying job. If a professor mentioned an important book I hadn't read, I tracked it down and read it - without being required to do so. If a paper was supposed to be 10 pp minimum but I had dug up much more than could fit into 10 pp, I extended the paper.

    For my lower-tier college students, they are constantly asking if something is "enough." Most don't want to go beyond the requirements. Some do, of course, and they are always the best students. Out of a class of fifteen students, I might be lucky to get three students who are more interested in learning than in getting a decent grade. This shift in attitude affects the dynamics of the classroom.

    That does indeed come from the type of student, but in a college filled with students like that, the learning environment is enhanced. The elite colleges are not only competititve when it comes to admissions but also when it comes to faculty recruitment. The best educators apply to elite schools because they hunger after first-rate students.
  • VenadoVenado Registered User Posts: 150 Junior Member
    My son transferred from a large public university which was basically a commuter school to an elite university on the east coast in his junior year. So we can see the difference in both of these schools through him. His grades were high in the first school, and remained the same in the second. So, I think that his education and training in both schools has been excellent. Maybe he will make the same amount of money in his lifetime whether he graduates from the first or second school, but I think that is irrelevant. The quality of experience he gets from the second school is so much deeper than what he received in his first school. The libraries were empty on the weekend at the public university, while in his current school students practically live in the main library. There is a passion for learning among his classmates and peers that he did not feel before. Everybody seems to be on his wavelength, and he has a richer texture to his intellectual life. For example, his professors in his current school require him to give lectures on various topics, whether its a science class or a humanities class. He never had that individualized attention in the public university. He was pretty much an anonymous student in the tenth row in many of his class. However, at the "elite" school, the entire class focuses on him and his ideas for an entire hour. He is praised, criticized, and commended for his efforts. He is exhilarated by the intellectual workthat he has to put forth in virtually every class. Does it make a difference in getting a good job or not, in making more money or not? Who can say. But I know that he is living a much more complex and interesting intellectual life because of the choice to his new school. Frankly, his mother and I are willing to pay for him to get that type of experience, even if does create a somewhat heavier financial burden on us.
  • soozievtsoozievt Registered User, ! Posts: 31,721 Senior Member
    I don't know what the lifetime advantages, if any, are from having attended an elite college. For one thing, the notion that parents are willing to go into $20,000/debt per year to attend a top school....I just want to clarify as one of those parents who is borrowing heavily to finance two kids' college educations....I would do the same no matter WHAT college they attended. I am not just willing to finance their education if they attend a top tier school. I just value them getting an education at a school that matches their needs/interests and where they thrive and are happy. I don't care if it is elite or not. The worth of the expense is the same for me.

    Anyway, the notion that I have read often on CC or in articles about people wanting their kids to go to elite colleges because they perceive better careers or incomes is not something I have thought of. I think this is possible coming from any college. The examples of those from state U's mentioned above attest to that. So, I never equated an elite college education with a better income. In fact, I went to graduate school at Harvard and am in a low paying field (education)! I have a child going into a career in theater....very unstable and often low paying jobs abound if you can even get one.

    My kids wanted to go to what they called "good colleges" because they crave a challenging learning environment where there are peers who are motivated like they are, heavily engaged in learning both in and out of the classroom and where the work in the courses is challenging and not too easy. That is why they chose the kinds of schools they did (very selective ones).

    I really agree with Northstarmom's post #9. There are top students at any college...bright ones. But these are more the majority at very selective schools than some other schools. And the kind of student body differs, as does the expectations of professors. This is not that different than the tracked classes in high school. My children would simply not have been happy in the easiest classes at our HS both in terms of the lack of challenge and expectations in the course work and the lack of motivation of many of the students in those classes. My kids took the hardest tracked classes in HS. However, when they had to take a class like Health that was not tracked, they did not enjoy it at all because the behavior in the classroom was WAY different. The other kids did not do the homework. The kids did not pay attention to their presentations or give a care.

    I think the generalizations that Northstarmom is making in post #9 often ring true. The kids at my children's schools/programs, including themselves, are heavily engaged in activities because they greatly desire to do these even though they are huge time commitments....no pay is involved....no advancement to their coursework or GPA or anything like that. They take on all these things because they want to. Hundreds try out for very few slots in some of the activities my kids are in at college. They do this stuff because of a great desire and motivation even though they put added time stresses on themselves with these major commitments. They don't take these on to get ahead. They do it for the pure enjoyment factor.

    I know students who go to less selective schools and many of these students that I know just go to classes and are not involved in much else (except partying). Often, college is a ticket to a job and so they do what they HAVE to do to reach that goal, and not much more. I'm NOT saying this of ALL those who attend less selective schools. I'm just talking a higher percentage of types in one environment compared to another. But highly motivated bright kids are at lower tier schools and slackers/partiers are also at top schools as well.

    I also have taught at five colleges that are not too selective. I can't paint every student with a broad stroke but suffice it to say, some just did the minimum necessary to get a grade but not much more. Sometimes I really had to help a kid pass or get through. Some were not internally motivated. They were very different than the type of students that my own kids are and the type I notice are their peers at their schools. My kids would not enjoy this kind of learning environment as much. They push themselves and like being amongst others who do the same and are very talented and so forth. They also hate work that is too easy. One of the only times I have seen my older D cry was when she started our middle school in 7th grade and the courses were way too easy and she wasn't learning anything new. She was unhappy with that situation and we had to advocate for some accomodations and acceleration. I know my kids have sought independent studies and that is not the same as someone who only does what they HAVE to do to pass or graduate. It is just a different type of learner. Example, my child had accelerated and completed French V (highest level course at our HS) and completed Calculus (highest math course available) in junior year. She didn't say, "well, done with those requirements" but sought out independent studies to do French 6 and a second year of Calculus because she wanted to keep learning in those areas. I'm not saying kids like that don't exist at lower tier schools, but that there are simply more like this at a more selective school. The expectations in the courses often differ as well. I know in harder classes in high school, my kids had 3-5 hours of homework per night including papers/projects. They have a lot of work in college and I know some kids at less selective schools (and I have taught at less selective colleges as well) where the expectations are lower. As a teacher, I have high expectations but I found at some colleges I taught at, I was practically forced to lower the expecations due to the kinds of students we had. I actually did not like this because I felt a college degree should stand for something.... a certain level of work....but the college was interested in trying to get these students to pass. It is just a different sort of educational environment.

    So, my kids didn't pick elite schools as a ticket to a lifetime advantage but more because of the experience itself.

    Also, for one of my kids who is in a specialized degree program, a BFA in Musical Theater (if you guys think Ivy Admissions is selective...try BFA in MT...every school on my D's list and practically every BFA program in MT that exists accepts between 2-9% of applicants!). For her, it was important to get very good training in her field amongst other talented students. You can make it in her field even without a college degree. However, a strong training background and the networking and opportunities involved can't hurt in her field. I know of two professional opportunities my D has this summer that were directly connected in some fashion by people who visited and saw her at her college. It could have happened at other schools, too. Of course she is in NYC where the center of her field exists. That has been an added plus.
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