How Your College Choice Affects Your Job Opportunities

does it matter where you go to college

Many high school students get stressed about college applications and getting into the right school. Parents put a lot of pressure on some students, too, especially if they’re targeting elite Ivy League schools.

Attending a school like Harvard or Yale is indeed huge for social status. But how much does college choice affect job opportunities after graduation? The answer is that it depends. Attending an elite school comes with several advantages, and having a name like Harvard on your professional resume is obviously excellent.

Graduating from an elite school likely means a higher starting salary, for one thing. Yale graduates have an average salary of more than $78,000 at their first job, according to PayScale’s College Salary Report. That’s more than twice as much as the average salary for graduates from Mississippi Valley State University ($32,000).

An important thing to remember, though, is if you get into a school like Yale, you’re likely on your way to a great career, anyway. Yale’s admissions are fiercely competitive, and you’ll need high test scores and other intangibles. So, being admitted to Yale is already a sign your job opportunities are vast.

We’ll look at how college choice affects job opportunities, including what you can do to improve your career even if you don’t go to an elite school.

Simply Getting a 4-Year Degree Matters

does it matter where you go to college

Very few people have the chance or wherewithal to get accepted to an Ivy League school. And when they do, they go on to do big things most of the time. According to NBC News, more than 50% of the women and more than 80% of the men on Forbes’ Most Powerful List of People attended elite schools.

Even if you’re not genius-level like that, simply graduating with a bachelors’ degree from most universities is enough to significantly help your career and future earning potential. We published an article that looked at education and income and showed that a person with a 4-year degree averaged around $65,000 annually whereas a person with just a high school diploma averaged under $40,000 annually.   

And, of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. For example, self-made billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates may have attended elite schools for a short time, but they also dropped out. Sometimes, a great idea, a stroke of genius, and a brilliant mind doesn’t need a college degree to succeed.

Attending college has become increasingly expensive, and many students take on heavy loan debt. But it may pay off. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, people with a bachelor’s degree who were at least 25 years old in 2019 had an unemployment rate of 2.2%, compared to a rate of 3.7% for people with only a high school diploma.

The same data shows that those with a bachelor’s had median weekly earnings of about $1,248 compared to just $746 for people with only a high school diploma. Other data indicates that employers are willing to pay a starting salary between 11% and 30% higher than those with a bachelor’s degree. So, while student loan debt is a lot, getting a bachelor’s degree certainly helps.

Being a Great Student Matters a Lot as Well

does it matter where you go to college

All that being said, more employers today have shifted their mindsets about college degrees. Some huge employers like Google, Apple, Netflix, and Tesla have reconsidered whether to even require college degrees for job applicants. For example, nearly half of Apple’s U.S. workforce doesn’t have a four-year degree.

According to many studies, graduating with a four-year degree is still useful, but it may not be as much of a requirement anymore. Some innovative companies think as long as you can get the work done and have great experience, that matters more than whether or not you attended a fancy school.

As far as college choice affecting job opportunities, several other factors may be more significant than the college you pick. These factors seem apparent, but they’re the quality of the student, the major you select, and your drive and ambition. A fascinating 2002 study by researchers Stacy Berg Dale of the Mellon Foundation and Alan B. Krueger of Princeton proved that the quality of the student has much more to do with earnings potential than the college you attend or get admitted to.

The research revealed that students who attended a more elite university earned no more than students who got accepted by those same schools but chose to go to a different college. The findings suggested that if the students are good enough, it doesn’t really matter where they go.

If a student is driven, intelligent, and has a good work ethic, what does it matter if they attend a state school like Temple University compared to an elite school like the University of Penn? No matter where they go, they’ll likely get good grades, land good internships, and find themselves succeeding at every turn.

What You Major in Plays a Big Role

does it matter where you go to college

Being an excellent student matters, but so does what you major in. Students who focus their studies on lucrative fields and pick good majors set themselves for better career success in the future.

Some of this depends on the school you attend, but not all of it. Going to an elite school that specializes in lucrative fields like business and finance will undoubtedly help. It will expose you to better internship opportunities and a broader, more exclusive network of professors and business pros.

For example, if you study a STEM subject (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) at an elite school like MIT, there’s an excellent chance you’ll land a fantastic job out of college. But even if you don’t attend MIT, graduates with STEM degrees typically earn more because science and technology jobs are in high demand, and they pay more on average.

Nevertheless, having a career plan in college and choosing a school because they’re known for certain specialties is always helpful. Even if the major subject isn’t a lucrative field, like journalism, attending a school with a quality journalism and media program means you’ll get an excellent education, better networking opportunities, and better chances of career success.

And speaking of the exceptions to the rules, statistics and studies show elite university graduates earn more, but that’s not always the case. Each student is unique, and depending on your drive and ambition, you may have to work harder, but you can still have a wildly successful career even if you didn’t go to Yale or a school like that.

There are many examples of Fortune 500 CEOs who attended less prestigious schools, just as there are unfortunate examples of people who went to Ivy League schools but haven’t done so well. For example, Apple CEO Tim Cook graduated from Auburn University, known more for its football team than its academics. And Whole Foods CEO John Mackey attended the University of Texas at Austin and never even graduated.

An Elite Education Isn’t Everything

does it matter where you go to college

As we mentioned, more employers than ever today are willing to overlook education, especially prestigious educational pedigrees. When jobs are hard to fill, as they are now because of the Great Resignation, employers look past education and look for the right experience. A Harvard Business School study revealed that professional experience is more important than degrees in large organizations (with more than 10,000 employees) about 44% of the time.

Many job descriptions list educational requirements, which can be frustrating. But even if you don’t have a four-year degree, Empire Resume believes it’s in your best interest to apply for jobs where you think your experience makes you a good match. If you are confident you can get the job done, it doesn’t mean you have to meet all the criteria on the job description.

There are ways you can handle this with your resume and cover letter. In your cover letter, explain how you meet many of the other job requirements besides having a college degree and state your confidence in getting the job done. We have a comprehensive article that walks you through how to get an interview in 30-days.

Remember that requirements in job descriptions are usually a wish list from employers. Rarely does every applicant meet 100% of all the requirements, and most times, employers will hire someone that doesn’t meet all of them or even most of them.

Career Success Isn’t Defined by College Choice

does it matter where you go to college

For the most part, having a four-year degree will give you an edge in the job-hunting process. People with bachelor’s degrees earn more on average than those with only high school diplomas, and they usually are unemployed less.

The same typically goes for graduates of Ivy League and other elite colleges. Studies show the average Yale graduate earns much more out of college than a graduate from a less prestigious school.

But while statistics back these statements up, they’re not true each and every time. Many big employers today like Apple and Netflix increasingly don’t even require college degrees for their applicants. And while elite college graduates may earn more and have better job prospects on average, several other factors go into career success than just college choice.

A great student and worker will likely succeed in life no matter where they go to college. What you major in at school also plays a significant role. And lastly, your drive and ambition are essential factors in career success. If you graduate from a less prestigious school, you may have to work harder and not have access to an elite professional network, but you can still make the big time.

Google has spent years analyzing which employees succeed the best at their company, and they’ve determined academic performance, surprisingly, means very little. When Google was small, they recruited graduates from schools like Harvard and MIT, but they discovered this was a bad strategy.

Getting a college degree may matter sometimes, and going to an elite school may also make a difference. But it’s probably much smaller than we’d like to believe.

Stay tuned to Empire Resume’s blog for more helpful insights on careers and employment, such as articles like Resumes of the Future, Creating a LinkedIn Summary, and The Utah Job Market.

 Maria Gold is a Content Manager/Writer for Empire Resume. She is dedicated to helping educate and motivate people with the latest career articles and job search advice. Her interests range from writing to programming and design. She is also passionate about innovation, entrepreneurship, and technology. 

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