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The College Fallacy

Finally, proof that it is the student's ambition, not the elite college, which truly matters in terms of long-term earning potential.

High school is not, by any means, an enjoyable experience. The constant testing, petty drama, and brutal monotony of going to the same classes with the same people day after day all combine to create a vortex of stress. In addition to that, there are SATs, AP classes, and extracurricular activities. You might even opt for volunteer work or a job. Pack on about five to six hours of sleep a night…and presto! You’ve got a cranky, sleep-deprived teenager, practically qualified as a member of the walking dead. Just peek into an AP-level class and you will see a roomful of exhausted, stressed out adolescents, desperately scribbling notes and grilling the teacher on the subject matter of the next test.

So why do we do this to ourselves? Why work so hard? The answer, more often than not, is that we all want to graduate, go to college, succeed, and make a lot of money. And certainly, the competition to get into college nowadays is cut-throat, with some of the top colleges admitting less than 20 percent of applicants. And trying ridiculously hard to get into these colleges makes total sense, right?

Actually, no. Economists Alan Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale began investigating this question as early as 1976 and found that going to an elite college does not, in fact, ensure a higher salary than attending a less prestigious university. In an article published in the New York Times, David Leonhardt explains Krueger and Dale’s study: “It [the study] tracked top high-school students through their 30s and found that their alma maters had little impact on their earnings. Students who got into both, say, the University of Pennsylvania and Penn State made roughly the same amount of money, regardless of which they chose.” Such findings are simply mind-blowing to those of us who were told that going to an elite college is the “key to success.” This study proves that it is the student’s ambition, not the elite college, which truly matters in terms of long-term earning potential.

So why stress out so much about getting into an amazing college? I, for one, am just so tired of going through high school freaking out about testing and AP classes and extracurricular activities. Rather than stressing about these factors, I’d rather focus my energies on actually learning something valuable in high school. It seems that the “grade” is beginning to matter more and more, no doubt because of the rising competition to get into college. And high school students undeniably recognize this pressure: just look at the high levels of cheating in high schools nationwide. We’ve completely lost our drive to learn, only to be replaced by the need to look good on a high school transcript. However, this need to “look good” turns out to be completely overrated, as Alan Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale figured out. So what’s with all the stress?

I certainly don’t blame the high school, the teachers, or even the tests for making us so anxious. I blame society for dishing up the idea that success means going to an elite college and likewise getting a high-earning job – lying and cheating your way to the top if necessary. I think we just need to remember from time to time that going to that elite college and pursuing that high-earning job does not necessarily lead to happiness; a good work ethic and a strong desire to learn are ultimately more valuable. As Alan Krueger advised in the conclusion of his study, “Recognize that your own motivation, ambition, and talents will determine your success more than the college name on your diploma.”

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

larry February 19, 2013 at 04:11 PM
I do not agree with the mentality that you have to go to college. There are plenty of careers out there without a college education. Both of my sons did not go to college are doing better then a lot of their friends that did.
Jack Murray February 19, 2013 at 05:15 PM
Family income is actually the biggest determinant of future earnings.
Hightstown Homeowner February 19, 2013 at 05:22 PM
Seems like you are conflating any college vs elite college with any college vs no college.
Elena Weissmann February 20, 2013 at 01:39 AM
I did not intend for this article to be about what the biggest determinant is for future earnings. I merely wanted to point out that people who go to less prestigious universities can make just as much money as people who go to elite colleges. I'm sure family income is a factor in one's long-term earning potential, although not the ONLY factor.
Elena Weissmann February 20, 2013 at 01:45 AM
Not at all. My article's purpose was to show how pointless all the ivy-league college hype is because the actual college name doesn't really make a difference in one's long-term earning potential (although simply going TO a college certainly does). College vs no college is an entirely different issue.

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