Hindsight on the College Experience
It’s that time where soon-to-be high school grads will be picking their colleges to attend, if they haven’t already. These are just a few things I’ve realized about the whole college experience when I stop and look back.
I recently came across an article discussing how Ivy League schools are seen as inherently better than everywhere else when it comes colleges. Regardless of what type of profession you want to go towards, or where your interests lie, or what your skill levels are, that Ivy League school on your application list automatically rockets to the top as being the number one choice to make simply because that’s how we’ve all been led to think. The author mentioned how this shouldn’t be the norm anymore, since seeing Harvard (and the like) as the number one place to be for college is only relevant to those who want to extract from the university everything it has to offer in terms of educational prestige; meaning Harvard shouldn’t be seen as the most aspirational school to go to for every student.
Interestingly, the comments on the article counter this point, noting that big names are idolized for a reason, and that every profession has the same type of problem. Not all of us, but a fair majority of us will agree that having a large and potentially influential connection on a resume is what helps you get noticed more so than your skills. Being able to say that you went to an ivy league to help you get a job is like saying you took a coffee brewing class in Italy in order to get a barista job, or you interned at MTV in order to get that production job at a local TV station. We tend to see those experience-boosting jobs as a means to an end for something else. College is no exception, as people tend to choose a college based on their interests, and how it can get them a job in the future.
I agree with the author’s intention in saying that we need to put less emphasis on big name schools being the end-all goal for every college bound student, but I don’t think bringing down the big name schools is the way to boost the smaller name schools’ reputations. Prestigious colleges and universities get their status from those who perpetuate them; almost any Ivy League (and near-ivy like my Alma Mater) graduate will tell you that their school’s reputation is pretty accurate due to adequate resources, positive environment, enriching classes, involved professors, etc. These opinions tend to be biased, of course, because who better to advocate for a school than its alumni, but also because of a deep-seated need for validation when it comes to defending such a big choice (but I’m no expert on psychology). You’ll see the same level of loyalty from alumni of state or smaller name schools for the same reason, firsthand experience from happy customers, and a need to validate the choice for state schools.
Though I should point out that this is a major generalization, and not everyone thinks this way about college (or job experiences). But when you sit back and think about it, there usually is some small part of us that knows this to be true to some degree, and while we hate to admit it, the way of the world still runs under this motif of wanting an impressive-looking status.
But I’ve realized a few things since my own graduation from a fairly selective, high status, private university, mainly that it didn’t matter at all how impressive it is or that I went to it; I’m still part of the generation that is struggling in the current job market to find a career that not only keeps the bills paid, but makes me happy. Graduating from such a university doesn’t always guarantee a leg up in the world like some people will have you believe. I know people who graduated with me, graduated from other ivy-esque institutions, graduated from state schools, went to technical schools, went to community colleges, went to/still attend graduate school, and those who simply graduated high school, all of whom are at varying levels of “success.” I’ve said before, it’s not where you go but what you do with that experience that propels you to where you want to go. Yes, having graduated from a university does sometimes help me look better than other individuals, but what does that matter when it comes to doing the job at hand?
In retrospect, I really could have gone to any one of the schools I applied to and ended up in the same place I am now because of what I choose to do (or not to do) while in school, and how that became relevant (and irrelevant) to the life I wanted to live. Specifically speaking, my school was better suited toward those in the engineering field more than the artistic/creative one, so it may not have been the absolute best fit school for someone majoring in English and theatre. However the English and theatre departments weren’t exactly left for wanting because the school as a whole was lucky to be in the type of environment that fosters creativity. But since it’s not an NYU or Yale, using the name to bolster my status in the job market is only as good as those who know about it.
A few months ago, I happened to run into a fellow alumnus at the airport. When this man found out where I went, he immediately asked what I did for a living, and when I told him what it was, he said something along the lines of it being a bit of a lackluster lifestyle, and that “I went to Bucknell, so I should be at the top of some corporation somewhere!” I’m sure he didn’t have any ill-intention with his comment, but it made me feel a bit like I had failed to use the big name/big results system that top colleges are supposed to give you. That being said, I did enjoy myself at Bucknell and wouldn’t have traded that time at all.
Yes, everyone should get the opportunity to go to college, but college is not for everyone. So yes, the Harvards of the world do offer wonderful opportunities, but Harvard-level places are not for everyone, just like state college level places are not for everyone. What’s most important is not placing emphasis on where you go, but how you make that place work for you and your future.