Choosing the Right College: Does Where You Go Matter?

It’s that time of year again,  when high school students around the country sit impatiently waiting to get the coveted acceptance letter from their top college. Many students are nervous and worried that they won’t be accepted to their top-pick and most prestigious institutions, and instead will have to “settle” for a less selective college or university.

college acceptance

But is “settling” for a less prestigious college really that detrimental to one’s future career prospects and income growth potential? When choosing the right college for you, does the college you go to really matter that much in the long-term?

Choosing the right college based on future income and career prospects

Let’s begin by addressing the first question: Is there a relationship between college choice and average income? There are many extraneous variables at play which make determining the exact impact college choice has on long-term income potential difficult to conclude.

However, in a 1999 study, researchers Stacy Berg Dale and Alan B. Krueger decided it would be more meaningful to compare long-term income data between graduates of elite and highly selective institutions with graduates of less selective institutions who had previously been accepted to elite colleges, but who had decided to instead attend a less-selective college.

Dale and Krueger found that there was little to no difference between the two groups in terms of earned income over the span of 20 years after graduation. These same researchers also conducted a follow-up study in 2011 which yielded similar results: college choice has little impact on long-term income.

Now, let’s be realistic here. Where you go to school can matter to the individual when it comes to pursuing a particular career path or major. After all, there are significant differences between degree majors and average long-term income. And if a student is interested in a particular and highly specialized career path, it would benefit the student to do research on which colleges have the best programs in their chosen field and the best opportunities for research involvement and internships.

Where did you go to college? vs. Did you go to college?

Degree and program choice aside, however, let’s return to the broader question of how much it really matters which college a student chooses to attend. Perhaps the most important question that will matter in the grand scheme of life is not “What college did you go to?” but “Did you go to college?”

“What college did you go to?” is the question that future employers will likely ask the least; instead, having gone to college and acquired applicable skills is more important to employers, according to Time columnist Michael Bernick. In his piece, “It Doesn’t Matter Where You Go to College,” Bernick bases this particular claim on three years of research alongside U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics regional commissioner Richard Holden on hiring processes and criteria. What they found was that the college a job applicant attended matters much less than the skills they hold that can make them successful at the given position and a positive asset to the company. Bernick writes, “Employers seek people with skills that apply to a particular job—and who have the ability to solve problems and work in a team.”

The big takeaway

It can be easy to get caught up in the pressure of attending a well-renowned highly selective prestigious college. Many future college students dream of being able to one day say that they attended an Ivy League school like Harvard, Yale, or Columbia. While these schools might certainly open up doors in the future for you in terms of networks and opportunities, it’s important to consider the fact that a college institution itself won’t make you successful, but the effort and energy you put into your college experience (e.g. student involvement, networking, building skills) can and will ultimately make you successful.

The big takeaway from this discussion: When researching and choosing the right college for you, what’s important is that you find a school and a program that fit your interests and needs, and that you are willing to put in the energy and effort to get the most out of your higher education experience. If you get accepted to a prestigious school, that’s wonderful! But if you don’t end up getting accepted—like the majority of applicants to highly selective colleges—don’t let it get you down. With your high level of motivation to succeed, you are still going to be very successful no matter what college you end up going to!

How much do you think it matters what college you go to? We would love to hear from you in the comments below!

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The Author

Dave Harriman

Dave Harriman

Dave Harriman, SHRM-CP, has a background in human resources, anthropology, and international education. His experience teaching English abroad during a gap year as an undergraduate student in Spain ignited his passion and advocacy for student travel. As a human resources professional, Dave is interested in helping students prepare for future career growth, and for helping facilitate social & cultural inclusion in the workplace.