Are you a complete loser if you don’t attend an Ivy League school?

“I am a high school counselor in Singapore where everyone is programmed to apply to Harvard from the womb onwards. Can I ask, Where did you do your undergrad education??? I constantly fight the battle of the perception that one is a complete loser if you don’t do your undergrad education at an Ivy League school…any thoughts?? Don’t worry…my feelings won’t get hurt if you agree with the perception…I was just wondering what your experience has shown you.”

The first part of the question is easy; I’m a proud graduate of Stanford University.

The second part of the question is harder.  There is no clear yes/no answer.  On the one hand, attending an Ivy League school or its equivalent (Stanford, MIT, Caltech) does confer significant professional advantages.  On the other hand, the name on your degree is far less important to success than the person who earns it.

Attending an elite school provides four key advantages:

1) Other factors being equal, it provides a better education.  Yes, it is possible to get an excellent education at a less selective school, but the fact is that elite schools attract top professors and have more money to spend on teaching.  While there are Nobel Prize winners who are horrendous teachers, the fact that I took multiple classes from Nobel laureates while I was at Stanford gives some indication of the quality of the education.

2) It gives you better opportunities to form lasting friendships that can have a positive impact on your career.  While this is less essential than in business school, networking during your undergrad years is a major advantage.  If you want to found a Silicon Valley startup, there is no better college to build friendships with future co-founders, partners, and investors, than Stanford.

3) It gives you access to a powerful alumni network.  For better or worse, Ivy League alumni do favor their fellow alums.  And the graduates of Stanford and Harvard are generally in a better position to help you out than graduates of less well-known institutions.

4) It sends a powerful signal to future employers.  Some cynics argue that elite schools simply hoover in the most talented students, which makes their eventual success practically guaranteed, regardless of the quality of the education provided them.  Whether or not this is true, the fact is that many employers prefer to hire the graduates of elite universities.  At D. E. Shaw & Co., we had a list of the 25 schools we’d recruit from.  If you didn’t attend a school on that list, tough luck.  The same is true today of employers like Google.

But notice that this enumeration of advantages does not include several key factors.  Attending an Ivy League school does not improve your work ethic, create your passion, or determine your level of entrepreneurialism.

Most of America’s greatest entrepreneurs never completed college, let alone attended Harvard University.  Edison, Carnegie, and Ford didn’t seem to suffer too much from their lack of an Ivy League diploma.  Even today, icons like Steve Jobs and Michael Dell succeeded despite dropping out of college (we won’t count Bill Gates, who dropped out of Harvard, rather than Reed or UT Austin).

Closer to home, I can think of numerous examples.  My good friend and business partner, Tom Kuegler, followed a checkered education path that included dropping out of West Point and working for the CIA before getting his degree from Loyola in Baltimore.  (Tom has often said, when people ask if he wishes he had a fancy degree, “I don’t need to go to HBS.  I know Chris Yeh.”)  Another friend, Ben Casnocha, will probably end up dropping out of Claremont McKenna (a great school, but little known outside of Southern California and certain policy circles)…and I’d bet that Ben’s degree or lack thereof will never ever get in the way of his career or life.

I wouldn’t discourage your students from trying to get into Harvard–it’s definitely a big advantage–but I would counsel them not to focus so singlemindedly on getting that Ivy League diploma that they fail to get an education.  Moreover, tell the folks who don’t get the fat envelopes they’re dreaming of that being denied by the Ivy League is a disappointment, but also an opportunity to focus on building up all the other advantages they have, and that those strengths will matter far more in the long run than the name on their diploma.

8 Comments

  1. Posted May 19, 2008 at 7:58 am | Permalink

    I agree with points #2, 3, and 4, but not #1.

    It’s not clear that an 18 or 19 year old being taught by a Nobel laureate is in fact a better education method than somebody who’s still top of their game in the field but a more focused teacher. I have two friends who are PhDs at Stanford and Harvard and in the fall they will begin to teach undergrads. They’re smart and great people, but I shudder to think about studying Intro to Econ or Intro to Philosophy with them, their complete lack of teaching experience and all.

    One book in particular, Privilege by Ross Douthout, a recent Harvard undergrad alum, notes how disastrous undergrad education can actually be at the school. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go there as an undergrad – indeed, the other points still hold true – but you shouldn’t go if you are mainly focused on “getting an education.”

    Also, it’s worth nothing that the vast majority of Fortune 500 CEOs today went to a school nobody has heard of.

  2. Posted May 19, 2008 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    I left out a sentence that makes my comment above confusing — about the Nobel laureate case, my point is I actually think the more expert you become, the harder it is to teach intro or mid-level classes.

    And the second point is about grad students teaching undergrads.

  3. commoner
    Posted May 19, 2008 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think that dropping out of West Point is a negative thing on someones record; a huge amount of people drop out (I believe that its something like 25% of the class).
    Just getting in to West Point is a huge achievement, I just met a guy who did. He told me that every year ~30,000 people apply, with ~2000 matriculating.

  4. Jeremiah
    Posted May 26, 2008 at 3:21 pm | Permalink

    It’s all about who you know, and going to an Ivy League school will give you an opportunity to meet some very influential people. As far as the quality of education, I think it’s negligible. The real question is the quality of the person’s work ethic.

  5. betterworld
    Posted May 28, 2008 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    *sigh* another one of them elitist ABCs.

  6. a
    Posted June 3, 2008 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

    go cardinal!

  7. Posted August 1, 2008 at 2:43 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the mention, Chris.

    Just to be clear, I actually didn’t drop out of West Point as that I more selectively chose to leave to serve the government in a different capacity that offered me more flexibility in my entrepreneurial yearnings.

    And Chris is right, formal education means little to me.

  8. admin
    Posted August 1, 2008 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Jeez TK, I tried not to blow your cover! I thought you weren’t supposed to talk about Libya.

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