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Articles / Admissions / The $64,000 Question

May 20, 2020

The $64,000 Question

Are you familiar with the term "ROI"? In the business world, it stands for Return on Investment. In the world of college admissions, ROI can play a significant role, too. Like the old TV quiz program, the $64,000 Question (which will soon be the yearly cost of elite colleges) is: Does it matter where you go to college? That's a fair--and in these days of economic hardship--pertinent query.

I posted a thread on the College Confidential discussion forum about this very issue, and it has generated some interesting comments and anecdotes. One particular comment caught my eye:

A couple of examples as devil's advocate:

1. I am working for a 2 billion company. CEO was graduated from Texas A&M at Commerce. Never heard of it until I met him.

2. Warren Buffet was rejected by Harvard Business school.

3. Jack Welch was rejected by an ivy league school and got his Ph.D at Illinois.

4. Steve Spielburg was rejected by UCLA film school and then rejected by USC film school, end up at one of the smaller school in CA. Now look at who is laughing?

5. Steve Jobs did not go to Stanford or Harvard or Berkeley. He went to San Jose State.

I can spend next hour listing examples like this. The take home message is the following: Gold will shine regardless of where you put it.

Assuming that a Web check would verify the accuracy of these assertions, then one possible answer to the $64K question might be, "Not necessarily." What do others think about the present-day, panicked pursuit of "prestige" (whatever that means) by so many high schoolers and their parents?

In hisConsumerist.com article, Ben Popkin notes:

Smart and ambitious students should go to community college and state school, and save their money for funding their dreams. At least that's one way to look at a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research that found going to a college where kids have higher SAT scores doesn't result in more money after they graduate.

In fact, those students who submitted apps for several big time schools, but were either rejected or decided not to go, ended up earning more money on average than those kids who actually went to those schools.

In conclusion, the researchers said that, "evidently, students' motivation, ambition and desire to learn have a much stronger effect on their subsequent success than average academic ability of their classmates."

Score one for the bootstraps.

Taking the topic to a greater depth, Martha (Marty) O'Connell, in The New York Times' Room for Debate section agrees with Popkin.

During the fall months at high school guidance counseling programs, juniors run to the stage to participate in an exercise to try and help them understand that it is not “where you go" that matters. They hold posters featuring the names and faces of famous people while their peers and parents shout out with confidence the names of elite colleges they assume the celebrities attended.

The “oohs" and “aahs" follow as the audience learns that Steven Spielberg, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates dropped out of college, that Oprah Winfrey is an alumna of Tennessee State and that Ken Burns graduated from Hampshire College. If even a few stressed students and their anxious parents benefit from this information, it is a worthwhile exercise.

Even better is giving the students an assignment to identify the happy, successful people in their own circle of family, friends, co-workers and neighbors and challenging them to go and ask “if or where they went to college?" as a means of broadening the conversation in their search for a life after high school.

The key to success in college and beyond has more to do with what students do with their time during college than where they choose to attend.A long-term study of 6,335 college graduates published by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that graduating from a college where entering students have higher SAT scores -- one marker of elite colleges -- didn't pay off in higher post-graduation income. Researchers found that students who applied to several elite schools but didn't attend them -- either because of rejection or by their own choice -- are more likely to earn high incomes later than students who actually attended elite schools.

In a summary of the findings, the bureau says that "evidently, students' motivation, ambition and desire to learn have a much stronger effect on their subsequent success than average academic ability of their classmates."

The late author Loren Pope, who wrote "Looking Beyond the Ivy League" and "Colleges That Change Lives," noted that the greater the opportunity for engagement and critical, creative and collaborative learning with faculty, peers and community, the more likely the chance for future success.

Just ask Ken Burns.


So, one automotive analogy might be that it's not how fancy or powerful your Bugatti or Corvette is; it's the skill of the driver that counts. In other words, you can lead an applicant to Harvard but you can't make him successful. It's all about opportunity, efficiency, and motivation. After all, what did The Little Engine That Could say?

"I think I can! I think I can!"


Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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