The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Actually, it can matter where you go to college

Harvard University (AP Photo/Lisa Poole, file)

A popular post on The Washington Post’s new Grade Point blog had this headline, “Forget Harvard and Stanford. It really doesn’t matter where you go to college.”  Really?

The piece, by Jeffrey Selingo, looks at a new book by New York Times columnist Frank Bruni,  titled “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be.”  Selingo writes:

The book is a quick read for stressed-out students and their parents. In it he has plenty of examples and lengthy stories of Americans of all ages and from all walks of life who have found success without degrees from brand-name universities. Bruni points out, for instance, that among the American-born chief executives of the top 100 companies in the Fortune 500, just about 30 went to an Ivy League school or equally selective college. (Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney, graduated from my alma mater, Ithaca College, and unlike many other top executives never got an MBA).

Of course there are people who have found the success they were seeking without going to a brand-name university — or to any college.  In fact, most people who have found the success they were seeking did it without going to brand-name universities because most people don’t attend. The super-elite schools represent a sliver of the thousands of colleges and universities in the United States, and these institutions invite in only a tiny segment of the college-going population.

Here’s what one commenter on Selingo’s post accurately noted:

Nicole Carlson
3/18/2015 2:26 PM EST
Everyone defines success differently. If I feel successful by getting a job or starting a company that allows me to pay my bills and put food on the table for my family- well, I can probably achieve that with many of the programs offered at a state university. If I want to be the CEO of a Wall Street investment company that only hires from a handful of elite schools, I’d probably be better off choosing one of those elite schools. All of which really only matters for getting that first job. Once you land that, you learn specialized skills and make industry contacts that will be much more valuable than whatever school granted your diploma….

Still, pretending that name-brand undergraduate schools don’t accrue benefits to many of their graduates is ignoring the obvious. As one comment attached to the post says:

3/18/2015 6:21 PM EST
As much as I might like to agree with the conclusion proposed by [Selingo’s] article, I’m afraid that I must disagree with the evidence mooted to support that conclusion. Indeed, if anything, the evidence seems to support the *opposite* conclusion.
As a case in point, the article invokes Frank Bruni’s evidence that ‘only’ 30 of the top 100 firms in the Fortune 500 have CEO’s who attended an Ivy League school or equivalently selective college. While the definition of an “equivalently selective college” to the Ivy League was not specified, let’s generously assume that the set of Ivy League and equivalently selective colleges comprise about 100 colleges in the nation. When you compare that to the total number of 4-year colleges in the nation – which is well over 2000 – one finds that less than 5% of all 4-year colleges in the nation (100/2000+) has produced a whopping 30% of the CEO’s at the largest 100 firms of the Fortune 500, for a relative likelihood of over 6X. Hence, far from demonstrating that top colleges do not matter, Bruni’s evidence ironically indicates that top colleges matter immensely.
Nor does the cherry-picking of specific examples such as Iger or Schultz help matters, for anybody with even a modicum of statistical training understands that outliers exists in every dataset. What matters is where the datapoints *congregate*. After all, a few people who smoke will live until they’re 100, but that doesn’t mean that smoking is safe, for numerous epistemological studies have demonstrated that smokers tend to die earlier than non-smokers *on average*.

 Here’s another comment:

3/17/2015 8:22 PM EST
Two undergraduate students apply for a summer internship at Goldman Sachs. One is a student at Princeton, the other at an average midwestern or southeastern state university. Both have taken the same curriculum, have the same racial background and gender, and both have the same grades, extracurricular activities, and other life experience. Neither has family or friend connections to give the student an edge. Which one has a better chance of being interviewed for the internship, much less landing it?
One of the two students lands the internship, the other can’t find an internship and volunteers at a non-profit for experience. Both are slated to graduate with the same grades and seek full time employment on Wall Street. Which student stands a better chance of gaining full time employment with an investment banking firm upon graduation?
One of the students obtains a job on Wall Street. The only job in banking the other student can find is a teller position with a small town bank.
The odds are overwhelming the Princeton student is employed on Wall Street and the state university grad, no matter how smart, is the teller.
Five years later who has the higher salary, broader network of contacts, and higher status position in the business world and society?

Of course, all things are virtually never equal, but Florida5 is raising the point that many people assume graduates from brand-name schools are smart and capable. They don’t wonder if someone was admitted to a school because there is a building on campus named after the someone’s grandparents. The super-elite schools have resources that other schools don’t, thus the ability to help their students in ways less wealthy schools can.

These things aren’t everything, but they aren’t nothing either.