I was at the gym the other day – in the morning on a weekday because I quit my “I’m a prestigious manager” job and now work from home and design my own schedule – and couldn’t help but notice a guy walk up to some middle-aged woman using a treadmill next to me. He walked up to her, grasped her arm and said, with a smile on his face, “stay in school or you will wind up at Michigan State“. Laughter ensued.
Clearly they knew each other, and that comment may have been said in jest (perhaps she went to Michigan State). But true to my own peculiar form, it got me thinking once again about education in this country, and particularly higher education and how different schools automatically conjure up assumptions on that person’s fitness for a job or potential to succeed.
Quite frankly, I find it disgusting.
I wrote previously how college may just be saddling young people with mountains of student loan debt without a lot of real purpose. It gets the ol’ foot in the door at your next employer, but at what cost?
But adding in the so-called prestige of the university brings this question to a whole new level of tomfoolery.
Several universities throughout our country are generally recognized as “top” schools. I’m referring to names like Standard, Harvard, MIT, Princeton and so many others. Graduates from these universities are assumed to be better prepared to confront the real world.
Then, we have “average” universities that have big names, but probably wouldn’t exactly rise to the level of ivy league prestige.
And then there’s me. I went to a completely no-name technical university in Colorado and completed a 4-year degree in Information Technology, taking the easiest classes that I could find, scoring the best grades and graduating summa cum laude. I admit it – I took the easy way out. I chose an easy degree. My classes didn’t require much work outside of class at all. College may have been the most mindless 4-years of my life.
But look at my life. I am 33 and on the path to retire by 40 under the comfort of complete financial independence and living in our dream city (Sedona, AZ), long before the large majority of the more prestigious students who stressed their way through Harvard.
Of course, my intent here is not to brag about my success. And yes, I also admit that everybody’s goal is different. Early retirement simply isn’t on
everybody’s most people’s minds. Working until your 60 does not make you less successful than someone who worked until 40. Or 35.
The point of this article is to question the validity that these prestigious schools somehow graduate better prepared students from the upper echelon of society, while students who graduate from, say, Michigan State, are mere “commoners”.
Certainly, it is easy to view a student who makes it into an ivy league school to be determined and focused. Regardless of his or her degree’s difficulty or grades while in college, their mere admittance into one of the toughest schools in the country might be a positive indication of that person’s potential to succeed and do great work. I can probably buy this argument.
It cannot be argued that ivy league students stand out more than graduates from regular schools – perhaps Michigan State.
But all this comes at a price, as these colleges are generally expensive. Just like plopping down extra cash to have that Nike logo on your shorts rather than the logo from an “off brand”, students pay for that prestigious name on their resume. “Whoa, this one went to Princeton?!?”
There’s a question begging to be asked: is the education worth the cost?
As I continued pouring through Internet research, something very profound suddenly became much more clear to me – it’s not about the education.
It’s not about an expectation of a better education. It’s about an expectation of a better salary. As someone who loves the color and smell of money, this is something I can respect. Work your ass off and plow through a university that, statistically speaking, appears to average larger incomes for its graduates.
But even a higher salary is not necessarily a given. A report from the Washington Post cited a study that reveals military institutions, rather than our nation’s most elite universities, average much higher salaries. In fact:
“Princeton, Harvard, Yale, and Columbia, the country’s top four universities by U.S. News’s measure, for one, wouldn’t crack the top 10, or 20, or even 30.”
Not even the top 30? Maybe students from Michigan State or any other “normal” university have a chance at keeping up with ivy league prestige after all – and at a fraction of the cost.
Or, how about this report: “A rejected Yale applicant with a high SAT score, for example, who ends up attending Miami University or Tulane would earn as much, on average, as the Yale grads.”
I am convinced that the assumption of prestige, potential or influence based solely on the university is bullshit. Even so, let’s be honest – there are many amazingly smart and talented students who work hard and attend an ivy league school, make big bucks right out of college and proceed to spend the next 45 years of their lives basking in the glory of that resume-highlighting gem.
And hell, I’m happy for those people. I genuinely respect the hard work and determination it takes to achieve that level of credential’ed education in this country. All that extra time doing homework, taking those tougher advanced placement classes in high school, engaging in extra-curricular activities and joining all kinds of groups and clubs is wonderful. You meet lots of people, make good friends and probably have a good deal of experiences to help shape the rest of your life. These are all very positive things.
However, there are plenty of students who lead extremely successful lives without the help of ivy league prestige – or even college altogether. As the Washington Post article revealed, high salaries, even for those from our nation’s top institutions, are not automatic. In fact, the most successful and richest person that I have ever worked with graduated from West Point.
Long time CEO of Oracle Corporation, Larry Ellison, never graduated college. Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard to start Microsoft along with Paul Allen (another college drop out), the world’s largest and most wide spread operating system in use today. IKEA’s founder, Ingvar Kamprad, no college. Michael Dell, the guy who founded Dell Corporation, dropped out of the University of Texas.
At the end of the day, most of us want happiness out of life. We want to feel genuinely at ease with our lives, comfortable in our achievements and proud of the people whom we have become. When it comes to achieving true happiness out of life and totally kicking ass each and every day, education probably does not make much of an impact.
I graduated from a no-name technical university, but I would put my level of happiness and stress up against anyone from a more prestigious university. At the end of the day – nay, at the end of our lives, it is that happiness that matters the most. Stay grounded and keep smiling, regardless of your education.
I couldn’t be happier. What about you?
Steve is a 38-year-old early retiree who writes about the intersection of happiness and financial independence. Steve is a regular contributor to MarketWatch, CNBC, and The Ladders. He lives full-time in his 30′ Airstream Classic and travels the country with his wife Courtney and two rescued dogs.