Elite Colleges Are Not Essential for Success


By George Leef

For several weeks, the nation has been talking about the brazen college admissions scandal where wealthy people in the entertainment world and business bribed and cheated to make sure that their children were admitted into prestigious colleges. The kids couldn’t make it on their own academic abilities, so Mom and Dad resorted to underhanded means through a shady “consultant.” But the FBI got wind of this, investigated, and now a number of famous people are looking at criminal charges.

One line of commentary about this has been to the effect that it shows how unfair the United States is: The rich can ensure that they remain on top by hoarding the places available in top colleges and universities for their sons and daughters. Poor people can’t get in and therefore remain on the lower rungs of the income ladder.

That complaint assumes that graduating from a prestigious school is necessary and sufficient for a prosperous life. In fact, the truth is that it is neither. Americans can succeed in life without having gone to a top (or indeed any) college, while some who have those elite credentials are not successful.

One writer who understands that is Bloomberg columnist Joe Nocera. In his March 13th piece, Nocera points out how foolish our “obsession with name-brand schools” is.

Can Americans be successful without having attended a top college? Certainly, and Nocera proceeds to show that most of our top business leaders did not graduate from such schools. Walmart CEO Doug McMillon, who heads the company currently atop the Fortune 500 list, graduated from the University of Arkansas and earned an MBA at the University of Tulsa. Those non-prestigious credentials did not keep him down. Apple’s CEO Tim Cook is an Auburn graduate. Lawrence Culp, who holds the top spot at General Electric, went to Washington College in Chestertown, MD. And there are quite a few others.

People can rise to great success after attending non-elite colleges. That should not surprise anyone. What you do with your education depends on you, the individual, not the college you went to. Recall that Abraham Lincoln became an excellent lawyer just by reading the law on his own.

Nor is it the case that graduating from an elite university ensures later success. Consider, for example, a Harvard theater program (highlighted in this National Affairs article) where the cost of the degree wildly exceeds the average earnings of the students. A degree from Harvard of any other prestige school cannot guarantee that the graduate holding it has “the right stuff” to become prosperous.

Nocera nailed the truth when he wrote, “Maybe a Harvard diploma will give a graduate an easier shot at landing a first job out of school. Maybe. But that’s really the only advantage and it doesn’t last long. Once you’ve landed the job, you have to perform. If you don’t, your Harvard degree isn’t worth the parchment it’s printed on.”

For years, I’ve been arguing that America has oversold higher education, luring in many students who are not much interested in studying just because college degrees are perceived as necessary. Even more, however, have we oversold the idea that getting into one of the nation’s “brand-name” schools is worth almost any cost—including criminal conduct. Perhaps this scandal will cause people to question that belief.

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