College decision season is fast-approaching for this year’s high school seniors. As students weigh their options, some may be plagued by a nagging question: Does where you go to college really matter? It’s a question that a lot of people ask, from high school students and their parents (who may wonder whether the higher tuition bill at a top school is worth the cost), to college students preparing to enter the job market, to graduates wondering if the alma mater on their resume is helping — or hurting — their employment chances.
Unfortunately, the relationship between where someone attends college and their future career prospects isn’t very clear-cut. Most research into the economic benefits of college focuses on how a student’s specific major affects their earning potential, rather than where they went to school. But that’s not to say that where you go to school is completely irrelevant. Few people doubt that attending an Ivy League college or university brings with it certain advantages, or that a degree from a school with a particularly bad reputation may not be a great investment. But what about other types of schools? Could choosing a Division I school over a Division III school, for example, be a boon to a person’s career?
Whether you go to college matters, not where
Evidence suggests that where you earn your degree doesn’t have a huge effect on your future career prospects. “Today, whether you go to college retains some importance in your employment options. But where you go to college is of almost no importance,” says Michael Bernick, the former director of California’s labor department and a Milken Institute Fellow, via Time magazine.
“Where graduates went to college — public or private, small or large, very selective or not selective — hardly matters at all to their current well-being and their work lives in comparison to their experiences in college,” notes a 2014 Gallup-Purdue study. What mattered more than where people went to school was their experience while in college, including whether they had good relationships with their professors, were involved in extracurricular activities, or had an internship.
Still, despite the calming words of experts, it’s hard to shake the idea that attending a well-known, well-ranked college or university translates into better career prospects down the line. Three of the last four U.S. presidents graduated from an Ivy League school, after all. (Bill Clinton, the lone exception, has an undergraduate degree from Georgetown University, another elite institution.) Harvard, Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, and the University of Michigan topped a 2012 list of where Fortune 500 CEOs earned their degrees. A school’s name recognition, whether in the area of academics or sports, does seem to have some relationship with career success.
Career outlook for Division I grads
When it comes to the career prospects for graduates of Division I schools, there’s no clear data available, though a few surveys and studies provide some insight. Payscale has compiled a list of the best schools for sports fans based on starting and mid-career salary for graduates of schools in either or both the NCAA Division I football or basketball conference. The United States Navel Academy came out on top, with an average starting salary for graduates of $77,100 and a mid-career salary of $131,000 annually.
Payscale also provides overall rankings for colleges based on graduate earnings, and many of the top-ranked schools in that report aren’t Division I schools. The school with the most successful graduates (earnings-wise, at least) was Harvey Mudd College, a Division III school, where mid-career graduates reported average annual salaries of $143,000. Other top-ranked schools on Payscale’s list include the California Institute of Technology and the Stevens Institute of Technology (tied for third place), and Babson College (No. 5), all Division III schools. But the Naval Academy did well on this list, ranking second, as did Division I schools like Princeton (No. 6) and the United States Military Academy at West Point (No. 7).
Payscale’s 2015 College ROI Report provides a slightly different ranking for colleges, measuring the 20-year net return on investment students can expect to receive on their degree. Of the top-five schools on this list, including Harvey Mudd, CalTech, and the Colorado School of Mines, none were in Division I. The top-ranked Division I school on Payscale’s report was Stanford, which was ranked sixth and has a 20-year net ROI of $809,700. Georgia Institute of Technology was ranked eighth, with a 20-year net ROI of $796,300 for in-state students.
But none of that means that students attending Division I schools are at a disadvantage when it comes to their careers. When the Wall Street Journal surveyed corporate recruiters in 2010 to see which colleges they viewed most favorably, the results were dominated by Division I schools, many of them them flagship state universities. The top three schools recruiters ranked best for accounting, business and economics, engineering, and marketing and advertising were all Division I schools. In addition, one study has found that enrollment at the top in-state university can have a positive effect on earnings, at least for some students. “Attending the flagship state university increases the earnings of 28- to 33-year-old white men by approximately 20%,” wrote Mark Hoekstra in a 2009 paper published in The Review of Economics and Statistics.
College education: a sound investment
No matter where a person attends school — Division I, Ivy League, small state university, or tiny liberal arts college — earning a college degree comes with big benefits. Overall, people with college degrees generally earn more and have lower rates of unemployment than those who don’t attend college.
In 2013, nearly 30% of adults who didn’t graduate from high school were unemployed and 17.5% for those who had completed high school but not attended college, compared to 7% for those who had earned at least a bachelor’s degree, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). People between the ages of 25 and 34 with a bachelor’s degree had median annual earnings of $46,900 in 2012 compared to $30,000 per year for those with just a high school diploma, per NCES data. Nine out of 10 college grads surveyed by the Pew Research Center said their degree was a worthwhile investment.
“While it might seem as if the value of a college degree has declined because of falling wages and rising tuition … this is actually not the case,” write the authors of a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. “Instead, after climbing impressively between 1980 and 2000, the return to a college degree has held steady for more than a decade at around 15%, easily surpassing the threshold for a sound investment.”
So, while attending a Division I school may not guarantee you a leg up over the graduates of other schools, the mere fact of earning a college degree at all enhances your career prospects and your lifetime earning potential.