How your college choice affects your future success

For some students, it may matter more

A prominent new book argues that a school's prestige does not determine a student's future success—but not everyone agrees.

"Where You Go to College Is Not Who You'll Be," by New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, concludes that where students end up attending is not as important as their drive. He rails against the "industrialization of the college admission process" and says that being declined from a top school may actually help students achieve their dreams.

Bruni shares a list of MacArthur Foundation fellows, Fortune 500 executives, and Pulitzer Prize winners who all attended "public universities and schools without major reputations." For example, just 30 of the American-born CEOs of the top 100 Fortune 500 companies attended an elite college or university

Ivy overrepresentation in the C-suite

Bruni's argument has been criticized by a number of researchers, including Jonathan Wai, a researcher at the Duke University Talent Identification Program and Case Western Reserve University.

Wai points to different data suggesting that, actually, individuals who attend prestigious universities are more likely to succeed in life. When looking at all of the Fortune 500 companies, the percent of people who attended an elite college jumps to 38%, Wai writes at Quartz.

Related: Six co-curricular learning experiences that prepare students for the workforce

Additionally, 85.2% of "powerful" men, 55.9% of "powerful" women, and 44.8% of billionaires attended an Ivy League or equally selective school, says Wai (he cites a list of "powerful" people compiled by Forbes.) Those rates are "well above what you would expect in the general population," Wai argues, because when looking at college and U.S. Census data, only about 2% to 5% of all American undergraduates attended these elite institutions.

"If you want to become a member of the U.S. elite, an elite school (or grad school), appears to improve your chances," he says. That is not to say, however, that rejection from top institutions means students cannot still achieve their dreams.

"Bruni is right that success in life can be found through many paths and educational institutions," writes Wai.

Student success and school selectivity

School choice matters even more for certain populations, Jeffrey Selingo argues in the Washington Post.

Low-income students often "undermatch," or decide against attending—or even applying to—elite institutions, even if the students have a strong academic track record. Students make this choice for different reasons: they may want to attend a college closer to home or one with lower tuition. They may also feel anxious their ability to succeed at an elite school.

Help disadvantaged students overcome their self-doubt

Selingo encourages students to compare prospective colleges based on their graduation rates, and if possible, their graduation rates for different groups of students and different majors (Sandage, New York Times, 3/25; Wai, Quartz, 3/22; Selingo, "Grade Point," Washington Post, 3/23).

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