Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Value of college Pt 1

I’ve had a lot of time on my hands to think (uh oh).  As I’ve moved from post-college employment to graduate school, I’ve been thinking about the value of my education.  Also, about the economics of student loans and everything that’s screwed up with this system that leaves so many of my peers with daunting levels of debt.  It’s pretty much impossible for me to rail against the student loan system without sounding like an asshole: I was so fortunate to have parents that paid for my education and living expenses, and gave me the gift of an adult life without debt.  I obviously don’t think Carnegie Mellon (and other ‘elite’ institutions) should only be open to wealthy or prudent and education-minded families, nor that I know better than any individual whether student loans and an expensive education are worth it.  So I figured I would keep this post personal but follow with another perspective, this one from a friend of mine who also attended CMU, with a STEM major and with student loans. (Coming soon to a computer screen near you … stay tuned for Part II.)

There are three reasons I want to thank my alma mater:

1) It is there that I met my future husband.  I am unwavering in my belief that marrying Sebastien will be both the biggest and best decision I make in my life.

2) Through research, I was exposed to behavioral finance/economics ... the other great love of my life.

3) The name brand allowed me to obtain a lucrative consulting job post-college, and later to obtain admission to an Ivy League school for my PhD.

On the other hand: my life would have been great had I not gone to CMU, as well.  It would have been a different life, but it would be a rich one, with great friends and experiences.  I don’t believe in soul mates or that there is one right person for everyone, or that any couple is perfect.  I would have dated other people, and I’m sure in that life I would find someone who would make me very happy, and I him.  Perhaps I would still have become totally absorbed in behavioral finance, for the field is growing and there’s plenty of fascinating research to unearth.  Maybe not, but then my brain would be cooking up other ideas.  And lastly -- I would have found a job that was in ways better (and in ways worse) than the one I did have.  And if I chose grad school -- there are many places for intense learning and further education, of which Ivy League schools are a minor subset.

Basically, my life would have been ok.  More than that, it would be great -- my life wouldn’t be over or completely doomed.  At least, this is what I think now.  My senior year of high school, not going to a school whose name or ranking impressed others felt like it would be the worst. thing. ever.  And evidence that I failed at life.  Yet I can’t ignore I’m writing this as a person who has been unquestionably changed and groomed by CMU, that my thoughts are a culmination of many classes, seminars, and influential professors.  I can’t say clearly how different I would be if I attended college somewhere else.  I have only one life, so there is no test vs. control treatment to analyze.  The great thing, though, is that this question has been analyzed on a larger scale, by comparing students who were admitted to elite institutions and chose to go elsewhere, to those who were admitted to and chose to attend an elite university.  These capable individuals all did similarly well in aggregate, and there was no difference in income 20 years down the road for the two groups.   That’s why I’m pretty sure my life would have been juust fine.

How is your perspective on college (and college ‘name brands’) different now than back in high school?  Do you think there are experiences elite universities offer that others don’t?  



  1. Back in high school I thought that the college that you went to actually made a significant difference in opportunities you were presented with but going through college and being employed by many companies (Mindray, J&J Ethicon, Movado, JP Morgan Chase and Co.) I would have to say it all depends on you. The only thing that a Name Brand college gives you is a higher lower bound, imo. Better companies will see the college and be like “Well he/she is a ‘insert elite college here’ graduate, he/she can’t be bad”. Otherwise if you actually pay attention and perform well in any decent college and have passion for your field you will be able to compete and beat any league graduates. At Ethicon I had CMU, Stevens, TCNJ, Harvard, Michigan, and NYU students all working in our department. The best people were from TCNJ and Stevens even though they were the lower rated colleges in the bunch. Currently at JP Morgan I have worked with almost every kind of college imaginable MIT, CalTech, Princeton, Harvard, Stanford and etc. The best performers are rarely from the top of the top schools, at least in my experience, they are usually from the mid-ranked schools and I don’t find that surprising. I am sure there are some people which go to those schools which are geniuses but I wouldn’t really bump into them, they would be the outliers. I thank my school for the network which I developed there.

    1. Thanks for the comment, I agree with so much of what you said. I think the best, most motivated students at any school can do well. However, the average student might get more guidance/experience/connections at the elite school rather than at a mid-level or state school. And I think while many of us aspire to be at the top of a college class, it's important to see how an average student fares, because let's face it ... we're not always as special as we think we are. ;) And you're definitely right about a lot of high performers -- I remember when I interned at BofA and had a bunch of time on my hands, I went through the list of corporate leaders -- so many had degrees from universities I had barely heard about.

      And congrats on graduating! :)