Burton: Elite Universities Are Overrated


The Daily Utah Chronicle

By Logan Burton, Opinion Writer


As a junior inching closer to graduation, I’ve been searching through graduate programs over the past few weeks. And in a strange turn of events, I’ve found rather myself enjoying this bizarre form of window shopping. I guess I’m a sucker for brochures with nice graphic design. But out of this shopping, I encountered an even stranger phenomenon — a burgeoning internet subculture that revolves around college applications. Tenets of this culture include articles and videos explaining how to write the perfect essay to get into Harvard, what extracurriculars to participate in to get into Harvard and how to get a perfect 36 on the ACT so you can get into Harvard! The cherry on top of all this is, of course, the emotional reaction videos of high school seniors being accepted into their Ivy League schools of choice.

In other words, this subculture is predominated by smart but pretentious high schoolers — and parents — who ogle over US News Best College rankings. As I looked more into this subculture, I frequently asked myself whether it’s really all that great to attend a prestigious university like Harvard or Yale. As it turns out, the answer is rather more complicated than we might expect. While it’s nice to be accepted into an elite college, it doesn’t guarantee your success.

Top Dollar for Top Education

Unfortunately, many college students face exorbitant tuition costs — not to mention the costs of housing, food and textbooks. Elite college students are no strangers to this problem. Surprisingly, financial aid is relatively generous in the Ivy League — yet the net price of these schools can still be as much as $28,890 per year. In comparison, the University of Utah has an average cost of around $14,364.

Of course, tuition can vary drastically per student, and looking at absolute tuition numbers is not a perfect indicator of the costs of an Ivy degree. It’s more useful to look at the return on investment. It would be disingenuous to say that elite schools don’t pay their dividends. However, their return on investment is, by many metrics, comparable to that of schools with less sterling reputations. There are many viable colleges and universities in the US that are not only cheaper than more prestigious schools but that also offer a similar financial payoff. Studies by economists have found that graduates of highly selective schools do not have a significant earnings advantage compared to their mid-tier graduate peers.

Hiring Top Graduates

Elite colleges offer a prestige that may look quite good on a resume, but they don’t guarantee a boost in the workplace. Schools like Yale and Harvard, for example, are well known for their extensive alumni and internship programs that help students get valuable networking experiences. But as long as you’re a motivated student, these valuable, resume-building opportunities can be found in any school. For example, the U has the Hinckley Institute and a career development center.

An elite education also doesn’t lead to significantly more success in professional settings. In fact, a recent Harvard Business Review article reports that elite graduates have weaker interpersonal skills than their colleagues. Still, do employers care about whether a student attended an Ivy League? Not really. Where a candidate got their degree reveals little about their work ethic and intelligence. There are many more important factors at play.

You will find brilliant — and not-so-brilliant — people anywhere you go. The college someone attended doesn’t necessarily make them promising professionals or person. This is good news. For all the disappointed high school seniors rejected by their tier-one dream school, settling into your “safety school” — a term I sincerely despise — might not be such a terrible thing. You’ll still learn a lot — and employers are far more interested in the skills you’ve gained in college than where you got them. Are you good at writing? Are you a good team player? Do you have a niche, in-demand skill like social media marketing or programming? If you don’t have these skills, I have some good news for you — that’s exactly what college is for. These skills are not taught exclusively at the Ivy Leagues or UC schools. They’re taught at most universities and taught well at many. All you need to access these skills, or whatever you want to know or be able to do, is to be engaged in your learning. When you make an effort, the dividends pay off wherever you are.

When I was a senior in high school, dreaming of acceptance into my top tier dream school — mine was New York University — an academically accomplished family friend made a comment I still remember, “A body taught in Harvard is the same body taught in the University of Utah.” Essentially, he meant that we learn virtually the same things and come out of college close to the same people we would be if we’d gone to other schools. At the end of the day, the quality of education you receive as a college student is dependent on you, not the institution you attend.


[email protected]