What a Student Does at College Counts for More than Where a Student Attends College

By Sam Rosensohn

To every high school senior who didn’t get into his or her top pick: I know how much it hurts. I also know that in the long run it’s not about the specific college you’re about to attend; it’s about what you learn and what you do with your college years.

Success requires a lot more than graduating from a top school. The big name school is good for an initial interview. But once you get in the door, it’s all about you.

The spotlight will not remain on your college for long. The focus quickly shifts to the expertise you acquired in your chosen field, and what you did outside of class.

So to all of you, who received Dear Johns from your top choices, take heart, history advises that people – not colleges – create successful, exciting, productive lives.

Alan B. Krueger, the Bendheim Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at Princeton University, and Stacy Dale of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, directed a study that attempted to assess the potential economic payoff from attending a more selective college.

The study concluded that the money students earned upon graduation was “unrelated to the selectivity of the college that students had attended among those who had comparable options.”

The average earnings for the 519 students who were accepted by both moderately selective (average College Board scores of 1,000 to 1,099) and highly selective schools (average scores of greater than 1,275), varied little, no matter which type of college they attended.

Krueger, a giant in his field, advised students in a subsequent article in the New York Times: “Don’t believe that the only school worth attending is the one that would not admit you. That you go to college is more important than where you go.

“Find a school whose academic strengths match your interests and which devotes resources to your instruction in those fields. Recognize that your own motivation, ambition and talents will determine your success more than the college name on your diploma.”

Enter a puny, bespectacled senior at Saratoga High School near San Jose, Calif., who wanted to make movies. His application to the renowned film school at UCLA was rejected. He went to Long Beach State. He tried to transfer to the University of Southern California, which had a film school, and was sent another rejection letter.

At Long Beach State, Steven Spielberg made five movies before graduating to become one of the premier moviemakers of his generation.

Jay Mathews, a very funny man, who writes on education for the Washington Post, and who admits suffering from Ivyholism – an addiction to the notion that big name schools make the difference, has put together a 12-step program to achieve some peace and freedom for Ivyholics.

Here are seven of those steps to help with Ivoyholism – a disease that’s not going away – an affliction you’re just going to have to learn to live with if you got it.

1.Getting into a brand-name school does not improve your life. Students with the character traits that bring success in life – persistence, charm, humor – are doing just as well financially 20 years after college graduation whether they went to Brown or Kansas State.

2. Teaching and learning are often better in schools you never heard of: The list of no-name schools with great college teachers is very long.

3. All those smart kids rejected by brand-name schools make lesser-known colleges great: If you think for a minute about the quality of people who are not getting into Harvard, Yale and Princeton, you have to envy the schools that are going to get them.

4. Very few of our heroes went to Princeton: Martin Luther King Jr., went to Morehouse, Colin Powell, City College of New York, Warren Buffet, Nebraska-Lincoln, Rudy Giuliani, Manhattan, Oprah Winfrey, Tennessee State, Ken Burns, Hampshire, Muhammad Ali did not attend college.

5.Career contacts are just as good at Nebraska as at Dartmouth: Every college in America has produced powerful alumni who can help you get somewhere.

6. Brand-name schools produce many graduates who are just average, and worse: The Harvard alumni reports are full of the same bad news you hear at any college reunion – emotional illness, alcoholism, broken marriages, ennui.

7. Why are all those foreign students happy to be at Cleveland State? The reason is that they, unlike us, have figured out that it doesn’t matter where you go to college in America, as long as the place conforms to your desires and needs.

The number of prime working-age Americans with college degrees quadrupled during the second half of the past century, Hillary Kowalski points out in an article entitled, Employment Puzzle: Assembly Required.

It’s curious. College degrees are more expensive than they’ve ever been – and they don’t count for as much as they did 50 years ago. It’s not about the college – it’s about the person holding the degree and his or her skills and personality.

So here’s what you do – whether you’re going to a big name school or a school that you have to say twice before people wish you good luck.

Keep your grades up, Kowalski says. Get involved in student activities that reflect your interests, take on leadership roles when possible, and find internships or work in your field of study.

A student, who graduates from a third-tier college, who has made five movies, written eight scripts, was president of the film club at school, created a film newsletter, found summer work in a studio, and pestered studio moguls about his work, is in a better position to find work in his field than the student who graduate from a top film school and who is completing his first film.

Grade point average is another key piece of information, because grades symbolize how well a student understood the subject matter and the university’s grading system. “GPA is a factor, but it’s not the only factor,” said Brenda Wagner, manager of the IBM National Recruiting Organization in Armonk, N.Y., which recruited 3,700 college graduates in 1999. At IBM a student with a high grade point average and no work experience or internship sometimes lost the position to a student with a lower grade point average, but experience in the field.

Involvement in a variety of activities in college is also an aspect that employers like to see, since it demonstrates a student’s thirst and ability to handle an assortment of tasks simultaneously. Employers like to determine whether students can multitask or if they are more like diamond cutters: Expert at doing once facet at a time. This allows employers to project just how versatile a prospective employee might be, and in the age of cutbacks, companies look for workers with growing power.

Since employers search for future rainmakers, they look to find evidence that the person who wants the job is going to make big things happen. One way some employers attempt to do this is to look at the clubs, teams or groups that students have influenced. The past indicates future performance.

It’s important to remember that in grades K-12 the focus is generally on a student’s potential rather than his or her performance. Employers or graduate admissions officers look at college graduates differently. They look at recent graduates as handicappers will assess the field of horses in the upcoming Kentucky Derby. Bettors want to see how the candidates have run.

Students – no matter where you’re about to go to college – the most important factor is what you do with the next four years. If the endgame is to wake up Monday morning excited about where you’re going to work, then start thinking about the workplace now.

If you spend four years at college involved in courses and activities similar to the work you’re going to be doing, the recruiter won’t have to wonder if you’re the right person for the spot. It’s all about matching up.

Sam Rosensohn is the founder of College Planning Partnerships, which offers prep classes for the SAT and helps students to prepare for college and write college essays. He can be reached in Clinton at 860-664-9857 or at sam@satprepct.com