Does What School you go to Determine What You Can Achieve?

Nassau Hall, Princeton

As it is spring, many of my co-workers’ children are anxiously awaiting acceptance letters from the colleges they applied to. The biggest worries I hear from the parents is the costs. And why wouldn’t it be? College tuition has skyrocketed , while student loan debt has outpaced other forms of debt. My son is not even two yet, but I’m a bit of a planner so I wonder what the costs will be for my son in about 16 years. With the rate tuition has been increasing, college will not be affordable for the majority of people. I have a feeling though, that the college tuition and student loans are in a bubble which will burst much like the housing/mortgage bubble. The costs are just unsustainable. Mark Cuban also thinks that there is a tuition bubble and you can read some of his reasoning on his blog. Nevertheless, the price of college will always be expensive. But is going to a big name college, no matter the costs, a good idea?

Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be

Even though it has been many years, I still remember fretting about scoring high on my SATs, getting high grades, and padding my resume with extracurricular activities so that I could get into a good school. Because getting into a good school would determine the jobs I could get, the money I would make…ultimately it determines how our lives will turn out. Right? Well, Frank Bruni argues that this is not true in his book published recently titled “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania” While going to a big name school will undeniably provide some networking value and look good on a resume, these benefits are probably overstated. He contends that motivated kids can get a good education almost anywhere they go, and lists successful Fortune 500 execs, Pulitzer Prize winner, among others, who went to public universities and schools that don’t have major reputations.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy, a journalist and author who is a college expert, wrote an interesting post regarding this issue, saying:

It matters not at all where they got their degrees but rather what they did with their time in the colleges they did attend. It matters what kind of person they are, how persistent they are, how hard they work, how creative they are, and how they present themselves.

I couldn’t agree more. Ultimately, a hard-working, intelligent and ambitious student will make the most of themselves and become successful no matter where they go to school. Furthermore, if you equate earning power to success, I think the major you choose is sometimes even more important. Another statement that Mrs. Shaunghessy makes which I found quite intriguing is that:

Sometimes the poor kid who had to pay his way through Chico State has the most pluck and is the most driven. These types of employees are sometimes the most successful of all, because they are used to working hard from the get-go and did not come by anything in life through their dad’s connections. They have no sense of entitlement, so are willing to get their hands dirty for the mission.

I’m not sure if all employers will have this mindset, but if I was in charge of hiring, I would feel the same way. I think many times those students who have grown up with many obstacles, but are able to persevere and overcome those hurdles have the abilities to be successful. I was accepted to a relatively “big name” university, and did receive some scholarship money to help out. However, it was still expensive and my father said that we could not afford it. I can’t say for sure if my career path would have been different if I had gone there, but I did go to law school so my undergrad degree probably wouldn’t have been as important. What would have been a certainty, though, is that I would have much more student loan debt. Both my wife and I went to public universities, and I would have no problem sending my son there. Of course, if he is accepted to the “big name” school and we had the financial ability to send him there, I don’t know if I would deny him that opportunity if he really wanted to go. But, going to a big name school no matter the costs is just not a good decision.

Do you think going to a big name college is a requirement to have a successful career?

52 thoughts on “Does What School you go to Determine What You Can Achieve?

  1. Debtless in Texas

    I think it might help get you in the door and initially make you stand out from everyone else. But like you said, hard working people who go to any school will stand out – especially over entitled slackers who don’t want to work.

    I have to admit it though….I went to a great school and slacked the whole time. I partied, chased girls, and gave my studies about half of the effort I should have. I still got good grades, I just didn’t really learn anything . It wasn’t until I joined the Army that I found a work ethic.

    I know that I am able to spot hard workers from slackers with about an 80% success rate. There is no substitute for hard work, work ethic, and holding oneself accountable for your work. Skills and job functions can be taught to anyone; the work ethic and desire to excel is innate and can’t be taught.

    Those are the people that I wan’t working with me…the ones who motivate themselves to be the best they can be without having to have their hands held. It is rare, but the people who are hard working, self-motivated, ambitious, and under-promise while over-delivering are worth their weight in gold regardless of where they went to school.
    Debtless in Texas recently posted…The Refrigerator Repair EpisodeMy Profile

    1. Post author

      I didn’t know you were in the Army, thank you for your service. I’m sure learning that work ethic among other experiences may have been even more important than what you learned in college.

  2. Fervent Finance

    No I definitely believe it is not a requirement for a successful career. What the more prestigious schools offer is a better opportunity to network with other high achieving individuals and alumni. But you also have to have the personality to want to get out there and meet people. The reason I have my current job has very little to do with where I went to school and everything to do with my history of performance and networking.
    Fervent Finance recently posted…My Millionaire To-Do List!My Profile

    1. Post author

      Interesting, since you are still pretty young, I figured where you went to school/grades may have a bigger impact.

    1. Post author

      Exactly. Looking back, I wish I had done more with the resources provided by my school.

  3. Laurie @thefrugalfarmer

    I completely agree with you, Andrew. Look at all the successful people who never attended/graduated from college, such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Mary Kay Ash, Milton Hershey, Michael Dell, Thomas Edison, Walt Disney. It is SO much more about your work ethic, etc., than it is about what school you go to, or if you go to school at all.
    Laurie @thefrugalfarmer recently posted…The Prepper GardenMy Profile

    1. Post author

      Work ethic is very important. Although in our economy right now, I think it’s still important for most people to go to college or at least learn an in-demand skill. Some of the people you mentioned were just exceptional.

  4. Gen Y Finance Guy

    I think there are some instances where a big name school still matters on your resume. That is probably becoming a Medical Doctor, a Lawyer, or Investment Banker. It’s not essential, but those people probably do a lot better because of the network and perception of the Education Quality.

    I do not believe that going to a big name school is a requirement to having a successful career. I have always believed that you get what you put into your education.

    I admit that I may be biased because this is the route I took. But you can compare my wife and I. She went to a school that cost $160K vs. my State School education of $16K. We were just talking about this the other day, and she had grand expectations that she would be making 6 figures right out of college. And that didn’t happen.

    I think a lot of folks have this delusion (the more I pay the more I will make). However, the reality is that its just not true. She was lucky enough to have parents that could afford to send her to this school and leave with no student debt.

    Did she get 10X the education I did? No.

    And coming out of school I was making 2X what she started at. And let me say that I have no problem with my wife earning more than me someday. There actually was a short period of time when she did make slightly more than I did.

    I think you hit the nail on the head. The more important decision is the field you choose to study.

    My wife and I plan to put money away for college when we eventually have kids. They can choose to go to what ever school they want to. And if there isn’t enough money in the college fund, they will have to make up the difference.

    I will definitely encourage them to go to a state school and keep the difference to invest or maybe even as a down payment on their first house. The opportunity cost for most people is far to large to attend a big name (pricey) school.

    If you are willing to hustle you will do just fine. Most people are lazy, so a little ambition goes a long way.


    Gen Y Finance Guy recently posted…The First 6 Months of Blogging – By The NumbersMy Profile

    1. Post author

      I didn’t think it was as important for doctors…I know some who couldn’t get into med school in the states and went to the Caribbean and are doing well. I see that for lawyers and investment bankers. For law school, many say that you have to go to a top tier school if you want the high paying big law firm jobs. Though you can be successful going a different route. I have a beef with law schools overstating their employment and salary rates for their grads but that’s another story. It’s great that you r wife left with no student loans…that would be an enormous burden to have. What majors did you guys have if you don’t mind me asking? (I was Business Mgmt/Political Sci…then went to law school later). I have the same mindset as you about the kids…I would encourage state schools, even though I remember thinking of it as only a back-up when I was applying…student loan debt is such a hindrance to new grads that it’s often not worth it. Thanks for your comment.

    1. Post author

      Yea, there are plenty of people going to college just to go because they figure it’s the next step. I definitely think it’s important to learn an in-demand skill, it doesn’t always mean that going to college is the right choice.

  5. Moun@Private Cbse School

    Hi, I just read this blog and found this very interesting because it contains something very important to future planning and for a successful life. Selecting the best college may be changing the future, but there is no grantee at all if I say and to being successful in life, it depends directly on your hard work and sometimes a little bit fate also.

  6. Debt Hater

    I thought this was true when I was picking out colleges to attend, but now I don’t think it’s that true. There is obviously the Ivy League schools that give a huge step up just from the name. But after that, I’m thinking it’s really not important. The name of your school might help get your foot in the door for your first job, but job experiences and networking definitely trumps that. After your first job where you got first your degree matters less and less. Sure it’s nice to connect with someone that went to the same college as you, but that can happen even from going to a cheaper state school.
    Debt Hater recently posted…Student Loan Cost After GraduationMy Profile

    1. Post author

      That’s right, after your first job, where you got your degree matters less and less. Unfortunately, for many students the student loan debt may hang around for much longer than their first job!

  7. Shannon @ Financially Blonde

    I actually wrote about Frank Bruni’s book over at Stacking Benjamins because I totally agree that where you go to school has very little to do with your long term success. I went to a private college in North Carolina that now costs over $60,000 a year for tuition, room and board and there is NO WAY in heck that I would encourage my son to go there. 18 years ago it was a bargain and I got a job out of college, but I could have gotten a job just about anywhere since I graduated in 2000 when everyone was hiring. 15 years since graduation and no one asks me where I went to school. It doesn’t matter where you went to school, it matters how you network and the success you make for yourself once you graduate, in my opinion.
    Shannon @ Financially Blonde recently posted…5 Dollar Dinners and MoreMy Profile

    1. Post author

      I’ll have to check that post out. I have friends who graduated around that time too (from my state college) and it was true that jobs were plentiful. Unfortunately, I graduated 2 years later and after the internet bubble burst but luckily found a stable government job. Nowadays, those government jobs are in much more demand and harder to get than when I was applying. They weren’t as attractive back then.

  8. Jayson @ Monster Piggy Bank

    I think so. School is really important especially during those initial stage like applying for your first job. Later on, experience and skills do matter. Based on experience, I came from a nonprestigious university which helped landed a lilttle good high-paying job. As I moved from one after another, I observe school is a factor but not that big that can help you reach your goals more easily. It really depends on the person.
    Jayson @ Monster Piggy Bank recently posted…The Cheapest Thing You’ve Heard OfMy Profile

    1. Post author

      Yea, what school you went to definitely plays a bigger role initially. I don’t want to make it sound like it’s irrelevant but sometimes it is not worth it.

    1. Post author

      True, but it’s possible to network with people who are going places in less prestigious schools, plus like you said there are other places to network as well.

  9. DC @ Young Adult Money

    I think you would need to be ill-informed today to believe that someone must go to a well-known or prestigious university to succeed. I do think it’s equally ill-informed to say that going to a well-known school doesn’t considerably help your chances of succeeding. Imagine if that driven student who attended Chico State had been able to attend Harvard. They could have made it just as far with less work and effort. I’m undecided on this one, to be honest. I still think most parent’s whose kids get into prestigious schools and who have the money to fund their education will encourage their kids to go to said prestigious school.
    DC @ Young Adult Money recently posted…5 Experiences Worth Spending Money OnMy Profile

    1. Post author

      You’re absolutely right. But I was thinking more along the lines of Done by Forty’s comment. Many of my co-workers have kids who are not deciding between a state college and Harvard. If my kid got into Harvard, and I was able to send him there financially…I’d try to make that happen. But it seems like many people are choosing between State U and some private college which is way more expensive but supposedly has a “better” reputation. In those instances, I don’t think it’s worth it.

      1. DC @ Young Adult Money

        Fair enough, and you have a good point there. I went to a private school because I didn’t get into our State school’s biz program (U of M has the #1 biz school here and the private college I went to has the #2 program). I got in my junior year but decided to stay at the private college the last two years. I probably would have been better off financially going to the State school, but at that point it was too easy to not switch. Honestly as long as recruitment is good at the State school it’s probably a better option than forking $ over for a private college.
        DC @ Young Adult Money recently posted…Why Parents Should Consider Their Financial Needs FirstMy Profile

  10. Done by Forty

    In general, I think the in-state, state school (esp. the better known ones, like those in the Big 10), is just about the best bang for your buck. UC system is also a very good buy for those growing up in CA.

    The ‘big name’ school only pays off if you’re truly talking about a big name. Ivy League, University of Chicago, Stanford, etc.

    Too often I hear people talking about a little private liberal arts school as if it’s an Ivy. It’s not. Regional bias plays a big role here, too. Just because everyone in your neck of the woods has heard of the school and knows it’s good, does not mean that knowledge got past the state line. There’s a good chance your future employers will never have heard of that tiny school.

    In general, where you went to school won’t matter a whole lot unless you’re talking about the very, very best and best-known institutions.
    Done by Forty recently posted…Dunning-Kruger and Other People’s MoneyMy Profile

    1. Post author

      Great point and it was exactly what I was thinking about when I wrote this. I mentioned this in my reply to DC. Many people I know equate some private liberal arts school as an Ivy…and don’t get me wrong, I’m sure those are great schools. But I would have a much harder time rationalizing paying $60,000 for the small private liberal arts school versus paying $60,000 for Harvard. Thanks for your comment…it summed up a lot of my thoughts that I didn’t include in the post.

    2. Femme @ femmefrugality

      Oh, amen, DB40. I know you’ll get this one… Pitt? Maybe a little more well known but definitely not ivy league and after lack of financial aid is taken into account it’s one of the most expensive schools in the country. I wouldn’t go ivy league for the name of the school, but as someone who’s parent’s tax returns made us look middle class despite financial hardships, I wish I would have applied to ivy league. Was a pretty good student. Might not have made the cut, but for the financial aid alone I wish I had tried.

      But as far as career potential, I agree that the name of the school is less important than drive and networking capabilities.
      Femme @ femmefrugality recently posted…Selena Gomez and EntitlementMy Profile

  11. EL @ Moneywatch101

    I think anyone can have the will to make it no matter the school they attend, if they just apply themselves. But lets still recognize that going to certain schools and having certain connections gets you jobs and places others don’t have access to. I’ve seen it before and I know it is a somewhat not spoken about in publications, due to backlash. Life is what you make of it, but for others life is an open door. I still think people should go to a school that has the best academic / life balance and is affordable within their budget.
    EL @ Moneywatch101 recently posted…Making the Best of FinancesMy Profile

    1. Post author

      I didn’t want to make it sound like the reputation of the school is completely irrelevant but I think it can be overstated. Plus, many parents think that certain schools are more “prestigious” than they really are and the value added may not be worth the extra costs.

  12. Abigail @ipickuppennies

    A great school name can be very helpful. But I have a friend who went to University of Alaska (where I grew up). She was a big fish in a small pond, and she became student president. She then got into Rutgers, which has a great diplomacy program. She got an internship and then a job at a consulate. Now she works for the State department.

    Really, if you’re going to worry about a school name, wait for the post-bachelor degree. Go to a smaller or cheaper school, get the good grades and accolades there. Then spend on the master’s or PhD.
    Abigail @ipickuppennies recently posted…What could go wrong?My Profile

    1. Post author

      That’s definitely true for those planning on going on to get their masters or PhD. Thanks for sharing the story about your friend. Although if I were an employer, I’d be intrigued about someone growing up/went to school in Alaska. Maybe that’s just me.

  13. Lila

    The Wall Street Journal did an article about this and they concluded that it doesn’t really matter where you go and get your degree. Here is the article:

    Great quotes that I liked from the article:

    “Most CEOs of the biggest corporations didn’t attend Ivy League or other highly selective colleges. They went to state universities, big and small, or to less-known private colleges.”

    “I don’t care where someone went to school, and that never caused me to hire anyone or buy a business,” says Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, who graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

    I was reading Dave Ramsey’s book that he co-wrote with his daughter, “Smart Money Smart Kids” and he talked how all of his three children went to a state university in TN. Dave Ramsey is a multimillionaire, he could have sent his kids off to the Ivies.

    I was very surprised that he would send his children to a state university because Dave Ramsey came from a humble background, and created wealth, usually when people come from a modest background and “make it” well they tend to normally send their kids to the best prep schools, the best Ivies, etc. Normally those parents feel like they didn’t have such privilege so they want to give that to their children. I learned from his book that you can get a very good education at a state university if you apply yourself and don’t waste your time.

    I really wanted to go to Westmont which is a private liberal arts Christian university in California but it was so expensive. I decided to go to a state university in Nebraska and so far it’s great. I like my professors, I like the students, people are nice on campus, it’s been pretty positive so far even though it’s my first semester here. I’m happy I’m here, I really do think that if you try to make the best of things then you can have a good experience.

    1. Post author

      Thanks for those wonderful quotes Lila. I hope more employers think the way that Warren Buffett does. Interesting perspective about Ramsey in that parents that didn’t grow up with privilege want to give it to their children. I would say that I didn’t grow up with privilege and while I want the best for my child, I also don’t want them to have a sense of entitlement. It is a tough balance. I’m glad that you are enjoying the state school in Nebraska and you are absolutely right that having the right mindset and outlook is the best way to have a good experience!

  14. M. Sherman

    Good educational institutions are all but mediums of transferring of skills and knowledge just like Photoshop is a medium for image manipulation.

    A great medium can be of absolutely no use to someone not willing to put in the effort and get their feet wet.

    As a student who went through one of the best universities in my home country, I can state to an absolute certainty that a good grade can be obtained through 60% of my total efforts bank, thus the benefit I would receive from this respective subject. Likewise, I could have invested 90% and acquired that much of the material/skills/info. It was all up to me at the time.

    So is in life as well. One can find plenty of mediums starting from libraries, the internet, randon people or self-coaching in order to get good at something. A friend of mine built his own 3D game from scratch after learning all the IT stuff from the internet and practicing on his own. He was willing to go through the ordeal because it was a passion of his and thus proving its all possible even without fancy college degrees.

    College still makes sense if one is willing to go there with a mindset to squeeze the most out of it, if one is actually at least a bit passionate about the subject matter. Otherwise it’s a massive time and money-wasting endeavour that will only built regret.

    P.S. I got accepted for a very good position in an internet marketing company before I even graduated. The interview revealed I had the necessary communication and foreign language skills to get the job done, my education did not matter one bit.

    Kind regards,
    Matilda Sherman

  15. B

    Hi Living Rich Cheaply

    I guess the thing about the better schools like the ivy league is they are probably proven smart but on the other hand attitude perseverance could be in question. They are also likely to get easy offers from external so loyalty would come into the question as well.

    Depending on the job, sometimes it could be overkill to bring in someone from the ivy league to work at your department.

  16. H

    This is a late comment but I want to provide a different perspective. Of course good schools is not a requirement to success. But it helps a lot. The discussions so far centered on the fact that bright, driven people will success everywhere. But what if your kid is not so bright, or so driven?

    I was a bright, but unfocused student with a lack of drive. But encouraged by my parents, I managed to get into prestigious schools and even though I graduated with middling grades, and I don’t network or interview well, it opened a lot of doors for me and got me settled in a nice career in competitive fields. If I’d gone to public schools, maybe I could still have been “successful” but the path I took definitely would not have been open to me.

    It takes a lot to be the cream that rises to the top. I didn’t have that kind of grit and if i’d gone to a less prestigious school, i would probably have sank to the middle as well. In a more competitive environment, my pride kicks in, and i try hard to at least achieve the middle.

    1. Post author

      Thanks for your insightful comment based on your experience. You make a good point that sometimes in a more competitive environment it pushes you to achieve more. I went to a competitive high school and I experienced the same thing. If I went someplace less competitive, it’s likely that I would have slacked off because I wouldn’t have needed to work as hard.

  17. Clementine Isabella Sophie Florence Cecelia Marie Grace Emily Charlotte Smythe-Worthington

    In some cases, some public schools are more expensive than Ivie’s.
    I was fortunate enough to have parents who sent me to Harvard and I was able to make the most out of what I got out of my LONG DEGREE (8 years to become a surgeon) and now I am doing that to my 2 twin boys going into Princeton and Yale.
    But there are so many good public universities which are amazing and good value for money. I have a daughter in Oxford and probably pay 1/2-2/3 of the money I pay for one of my boys (university in England is extremely more affordable).

    1. Post author

      Can you expand on that? I know a lot of Ivie’s give out scholarships and provide financial aid so in that case you’re right that it can come out cheaper. Harvard…and surgeon…wow very impressive! =) And good point about England as well as Europe, though I’m not exactly sure how their system works, my understanding is that the tuition there is much more reasonable.

      1. Clementine Isabella Sophie Florence Cecelia Marie Grace Emily Charlotte Smythe-Worthington

        If you cannot afford tuition in England which is 9,000 pounds a year excluding how much it costs to live each year, living costs could be in the regions of 5,000-10,000 per year if you lived away from home, living is more expensive in London (luckily we could), in England if you cannot afford university, you go to it for ‘free’, the government pays for it and when you earn 21,000+ per year you pay it back bit by bit (if you earn more money then you pay more back each year) and if after 30 years you have not paid it back, the loan is cleared. It is a government loan many students take (it is safe with no interest!). As for living cost grants that you can get are normally around 4,000-5,000 pounds and there are maintenance loans. Europe is a beautiful place and my youngest plans on going to Switzerland (the education system, low crime rates, good living standards) and America for university.
        Some public colleges (excluding scholarships/ are yearly just more expensive).
        Sarah Lawrence , George Washington University , Georgetown are more expensive for tuition than Ivy Leagues.

        There is an article about the 50 most expensive colleges.

  18. Abhilasha

    You really asked a very good question…Many parent cant afford education expenses of their child that doesn’t mean what you will achieve in future. I have experienced this in my life.

    1. Post author

      I know many parents who say that they will try to pay for higher education for their child no matter what…because it is so important. But, the price nowadays makes that almost impossible for many people. I think even for those who can’t afford the “name-brand” schools…they can still be successful in life even if they go a different route.

  19. MDN@education society

    I am impressed, I must say. Very seldom do I come across a blog thats both educational and entertaining, and let me tell you, you’ve hit the nail on the head. Your thoughts is important; the matter is something that not enough people are speaking intelligently about. I am very happy that I stumbled across this in my search for something relating to it.

  20. Pingback: Is There a Penalty For Contributing to a 529 Plan? | Living Rich Cheaply

  21. jackstace


    This post is pretty interesting!

    I am soo pleased to have found your page.
    I must say that choosing a good school is important .Choosing a good school is a path of success for a child.The benefits for that is Children have much more opportunity to develop so called ‘soft skills’ at a very early age.
    As well as providing quality provision in core areas such as Mathematics, English and Science, many independent Lower and Upper Junior Schools are not restricted by the obligation to implement the SATS and therefore children experience to the full subjects such as Art, Drama, Music and also Modern Foreign Languages such as Spanish and French.

    Thannk you so much for this share…
    keep up doing good work..
    God Bless U!!

  22. Keith K. Moffitt

    I agree with this it does not matters from which universities or college they got their degrees and also what they did in their college timings. The things that all matters are, that what kind of person they are, how stubborn they are, how much hard working as well as creative they are, and how they present themselves.

    When it comes to college admission interview (counselling) we can browse the web – a source of information to get help.

  23. Pingback: SOAN101E Introduction to Sociology | Social Power

  24. Pingback: How Will Your Children Pay For College? | Living Rich Cheaply

  25. Season Vision

    This is really attention-grabbing, You’re a very skilled blogger.

    I have joined your rss feed and look forward to looking for more of
    your fantastic post. Additionally, I’ve shared your site in my social
    Season Vision recently posted…Season VisionMy Profile


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge