Just about every year, someone pens a column focusing on how attending an elite university is highly overrated and how the vast majority of America’s most successful people did not attend elite universities at all. They’ll always be able to find data that supports their argument — just as one can find data that supports most arguments. But, of course, to make this argument would be to ignore the forest for the trees. Back in 2019, which seems like eons ago, a college counselor at The Derryfield School in New Hampshire wrote that the undergraduate institution boasting the most Fortune 500 CEOs happens to be the University of Wisconsin — with 14 CEOs. He didn’t happen to mention that Harvard University, at that same time, boasted 12 Fortune 500 CEOs. Or that six Ivy League schools in addition to Stanford University were among the 30 most common alma maters of these Fortune 500 CEOs at the time as well, as reported Abigail Hess for CNBC. Instead, he glossed over these important facts, dismissively writing in a parenthetical: “(though some of those institutions were well represented)” in reference to the Ivies.
Well, we recently came across a piece out this month in The Atlantic by Daniel Markovits entitled “How College Became a Ruthless Competition Divorced From Learning” that offers some other interesting data countering Mr. Barnard’s thesis. As Mr. Markovits writes, “Because education, like aristocratic rank, is a positional good, the most elite educations yield the greatest returns: ‘The value to me of my education,’ a well-known economist once observed, ‘depends not only on how much I have but also on how much the man ahead of me in the job line has.’ In law, graduates of top-10 schools make on average half more than graduates of schools ranked 21 to 100; at the most profitable law firm in America, where partners make more than $6 million a year, more than 90 percent of the partners graduated from a top-10 law school. Top investment banks recruit from only a handful of colleges— sometimes just Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, Yale, and perhaps MIT and Williams College. A survey of a narrowly targeted set of top jobs reports, almost unbelievably, that ‘nearly 50 percent of America’s corporate leaders, 60 percent of its financial leaders, and 50 percent of its highest government officials attended only 12 universities.'”
And, no, Mr. Barnard — the University of Wisconsin is not among those 12 institutions. But never on the pages of this college admissions blog have you ever read that America’s elite universities offer a better in-classroom education. In fact, we’ve argued one can secure just as good of an in-classroom education at a top public university as you can at an Ivy League school — perhaps even better. But the entirety of a college experience does not take place within a classroom. It’s about the friendships forged. It’s about the lifelong connections. It’s about going to school with young people who are all at the top of their class, future captains of education and finance, law, medicine, and everything in between. In that respect, the education at a public university simply doesn’t compare to the education at Ivy League institutions. The aforementioned data, well, it’s no coincidence.
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