Choice of Major vs. Where You Attend College

Choice of College, Where You Go To College, College Matters
It might be a cool thing to say that where you go to college doesn’t matter. But it’s not true, as the data elucidates.

There are a lot of folks out there who argue that where you go to college doesn’t matter a whole lot, that what you choose as a major is so much more important. In fact, there’s a column up on MarketWatch today by Liz Weston, a personal finance accountant, entitled “The college your kids attend isn’t as important as the majors they choose.” A key objective of Ivy Coach’s college admissions blog is to speak truth to power and dispel misconceptions about the college admissions process — misconceptions perpetuated by high school counselors, private college counselors, admissions officers, parents, students, and the local handyman. The fact is, Liz Weston’s column, with its misleading headline and its misleading statements throughout, defy what the data so clear demonstrates in spite of every one of pop psychologist Malcolm Gladwell’s anecdotal stories to the contrary: where you go to college matters a whole lot.

The Argument that Major Matters More Than College Attended

In her column for MarketWatch, Weston writes, “In reality, the colleges your kids attend matter far less than the majors they choose, and multiple studies have shown elite schools don’t offer any extra payoff for most graduates. Inflated expectations can even lead to worse outcomes, including higher dropout rates.” And yet Weston relies on no data, no scientific evidence to support this cockamamie theory.

Excuse us. We misspoke. Weston does rely on some data in attempting to evidence her argument. She subsequently states, “Elite schools don’t produce happier or more successful people. A 2014 study of nearly 30,000 college graduates found no correlation between a college’s admissions rate and future job satisfaction or well-being. ” Please do read that again. Elite schools don’t necessarily lead to happier people? No kidding! Did one really need to read an article for Marketwatch to know that money doesn’t buy happiness? Can’t one just listen to some country music? As Chris Janson sang it:

Money can’t buy happiness,
But it could buy me a boat, it could buy me a truck to pull it
It could buy me a Yeti 110 iced down with some silver bullets
Yeah, and I know what they say
Money can’t buy everything
Well, maybe so,
But it could buy me a boat

The Truth is College Attended Matters Most of All

Yes, as most people know, money can’t buy happiness. But it can buy one a boat. Attending an elite college can’t buy happiness anymore than can attending a community college or trade school but there’s a reason Weston is pivoting to the non-existent link between where you go to college and happiness — to ignore the actually relevant data that suggests where you go to college has a direct and measurable impact on earning potential. A recent CNBC Make It study analyzed data to determine the top 50 colleges that pay off the most. The top ten on the list? They’re all highly selective institutions: Stanford University, Princeton University, University of Chicago, California Institute of Technology, Harvard University, Yale University, Columbia University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Pomona College, and Duke University, respectively. This is not based on major. This study is based on school attended.

And let’s not ignore all the other studies that point to how much more Ivy League graduates earn than do graduates of less selective schools. As Christopher Ingraham reported for The Washington Post in a piece entitled “This chart shows how much more Ivy League grads make than you,” data from the Department of Education suggests that “10 years after starting college, the typical Ivy League grad earns more than twice as much as the typical graduate of other colleges. In fact, the median Ivy graduate — say, your solid B- Harvard student — is making more money than the top 10 percent of graduates at other schools.” And this data is irrespective of choice of major. Can engineering grads make more than philosophy grads? Of course. But this study does not take major into account because the school attended tells the story.

Shall we go on? Agree? Disagree? Wish to join Malcolm by sharing a story about how a graduate of a school that isn’t all that selective became a Fortune 500 CEO? Of course that’s possible! And wonderful! But exceptions do not make a rule. Comment away!

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1 Comment

  • Jefferson Bowen says:

    One thing all those top 10 elite schools have in common is they enroll a disproportionately large percentage of white students from upper and upper-middle class backgrounds. I’m not saying that’s the reason for the earnings discrepancy, but it is data point that can’t be ignored in the search for clues.

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