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Paying for College

Why Elite Colleges Don’t Guarantee Success

If you have aspiration and drive, you will do well no matter where you go.

New York Times columnist and author Frank Bruni Photo: Alberto Oviedo

New York Times columnist Frank Bruni is the author of Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be (Grand Central Publishing, 2015). Kiplinger's recently spoke with him about the book. Here's an excerpt from our interview:

See Also: Best College Values, 2015

In your book, you argue that the Ivy League isn’t the gateway to career achievement that people think it is.

We’ve constructed a mythology that suggests it’s a guarantor of success or an insurance policy against failure. That grossly exaggerates its importance. We have as many or more examples of people who’ve gotten far in life based on how well they use the college they went to, and not on the name of the college. There are many paths to where you want to go.

But don’t elite schools give their alumni an edge, including a lifelong network?

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Certain schools do confer an advantage. But it’s not a make-or-break advantage, and it doesn’t last your whole life. A number of schools have amazing networks, some tied to a particular profession. But by the time people reach the age of 28, 29, 30—and certainly 35—no one’s asking where they went to school. Their work history is much more consequential.

If not the prestige of the school, what are the predictors of later success?

There’s a fascinating study that at first blush seems to show that people who went to elite colleges earn an average of 7% more over their lifetime than people who didn’t. But when you look at people who went to less-exclusive institutions but had also applied to more-elite schools, the earnings differential evaporates. If you have the aspiration and drive to apply to an exclusive school, it turns out not to matter much whether you flex your muscles at Harvard or at Penn State.

Beyond college rankings, what other criteria should prospective students investigate?

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Two things that I would want a kid to look at are the percentage of students with enough intellectual curiosity to study abroad and the socioeconomic diversity of the school. Ideally, you want to go to a school that makes an attempt to capture the diversity of our society, because your comfort with that is going to have a lot to do with your future success.

By now, prospective freshmen know where they’re going. Any advice for kids who didn’t get into their first-choice school?

If you’re embarking on a college education, you’re already in a privileged situation that you should not shortchange with qualms about whether it’s exactly where you want to be. If you spend more than a few nanoseconds feeling disappointed about the campus you are about to stride across, then you are doing yourself a great disservice.