When Does Where You Went to College Stop Mattering?

When Does Where You Went to College Stop Mattering?As a relatively recent grad(4.5 years ago), I know all about the pressure of applying to college and getting into a great school.  And believe it or not, it’s getting even tougher.  It’s now more competitive than ever and there’s also more pressure than ever on students to get in to one of the top universities.

We all know that there’s a high correlation between going to college and making more money, becoming more successful, etc.  But is there anything special that’s being taught at these elite universities that isn’t being taught at your average state school?  I started thinking about this a lot during college because I had some of the worst professors you could imagine.  I’m sure they were doing some brilliant research but they couldn’t teach worth a damn.  Their lectures consisted of reading straight from the book and re-using the same tests from the year prior(some of them at least changed the numbers around).  I actually started doing better in school when I stopped going to lectures and spent that time studying instead.

Surface Value Only

I honestly believe that I could have gotten the exact same education on my own.  A lot of the old tests were available online and you could easily buy all the textbooks required for my degree in aerospace engineering yourself.  It would have taken a lot of self-motivation but it definitely could have been done.  The only problem with that route is that I wouldn’t get that little piece of paper that says I graduated with a Bachelor of Science from the University of California at San Diego.  That little piece of paper is what my parents and the government paid nearly $100k for.

I would argue that my college degree started not to matter even before I even got it.  As a senior, I applied to all sorts of companies in the San Diego area and even though I had an above average GPA from an above average school, I didn’t even get an interview with any of them.  I ended up having to take a job in Palmdale, CA – a city most famous for the Afroman song.

Luckily, at the very last moment, I got an interview with a top San Diego engineering company through a networking contact I made at a party.  The guy who connected me was very well respected at this company and I truly believe that he was the main reason why I ended up getting hired.  When it comes to getting a job, it really is who you know but when it comes to holding a job and excelling at a job it’s what you know.

Expecting a Lot

One of the main benefits I’ve gotten from attending a top school is that people think very highly of me now.  When I tell people I graduated from UC San Diego and I work as an aerospace engineer, they say “Oh you must be pretty smart”(that’s an exact quote from a guy I played golf with today!).  That’s nice and all but it really doesn’t do much for me other than boost my self-esteem.  And if you ask anyone who knows me, I don’t need any more of that.

I remember several instances at my old job where my boss made references to the fact that I went to a top UC school.  Apparently, this meant that I should be able to figure things out faster and do better work.  In this case, attending a top school might have actually hurt me because now my boss expected a lot more out of me.

Since it’s hard to quantitatively measure an engineer’s level of expertise, they are judged more based on impressions than anything else.  There were guys at my work who were just plainly disliked and no matter what they did, there was nothing they could do to change those impressions.  There were other guys at my work who had 20 years experience so they must know what they’re doing, right?  In the end, these impressions had a lot more impact than where they went to college.

When it Starts to Mean Nothing

Within a year or two of getting hired, I could clearly tell that there were those who excelled at their job and those who didn’t.  Once I had a couple years experience under my belt, where I got my degree meant nothing.  My boss and my boss’ boss didn’t care where I went to school.  They cared about the quality of my work and wanted to make sure I was meeting all my program deadlines.

I think where you went to school is extremely over rated.  I honestly don’t care how people got to where they are today, I care about where they are today.  As you gain more experience, where you went to school will matter less and less.  It’s hard to be gainfully employed for 20 years and still suck at your job.  If you do somehow slip through the cracks though, I’d say that’s a feat in itself!

What It All Means

One thing I’ve learned about working for myself online is that where you went to school means very little in this industry.  Most of the advertisers and blogs that I write for could care less where I went to school.  They only care about the quality of my blogs(defined by quantitative measures like page rank and domain authority) and my writing skills.  In fact, where I went to college means absolutely nothing for my blogs.  I do include it on my resumes when I apply for freelancing gigs but most of the jobs I apply for only want to see samples of your writing.

In general, I think our society puts a little too much emphasis on the surface.  If you make a million dollars a year, but also spend a million, that means nothing.  If you have an awesome degree from a top school that doesn’t mean a whole lot to me.  It shows that you have a habit of working hard in the past but I still want to see you prove it today.  You might be great at getting A’s and scoring well on tests but how does that relate to the field I want to hire you for?

Readers, what do you think about college degrees and how much they matter?  It’s obviously better to have an awesome degree than not have one but does it make much of a difference?

-Harry @ PF Pro

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I'm Mr. 4HWD, I started this site because I think everyone should be able to work at a job they enjoy and still have time to do all the fun stuff. I don't want to retire early, I want to work four hours a day on the things I love for the rest of my life.

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Comments

  1. says

    You hit the nail right on the head with, “I honestly believe that I could have gotten the exact same education on my own”. My wife and I discussed that very topic a few weeks ago & I wrote a blog on it also. Libraries are filled with books of all types that can give us the same information taught to us by horrible instructors at extraordinary prices. My 14-year old son has already decided to attend a trade school instead of a traditional university. This decision is based on a small part of a book I read to him called “Where Did My Money Go?”. The chapter on colleges was very eye opening!

    • says

      Thanks Taz, it’s always nice when at least one person agrees with me haha! But you’re right on. It’s definitely not easier to do it on your own since you have to self-motivate but it can definitely be done. I’ve taught myself everything that I know about finance, blogging, and working online. I didn’t go to school for it and I’m doing very well compared to the average college graduate. And best of all my ‘second’ self-taught education was free!

  2. says

    A degree does matter depending on the career path. For example, as a fellow engineer, I wouldn’t have been hired in my position if I didn’t have an engineering degree. (That said, my job doesn’t entail any real “engineering”.)

    As for the school where the degree is obtained? In Canada, we don’t have state vs ivy league universities and school are more or less the same across the board. However, with entry level jobs, employers may show preference to candidates coming from schools reputable for a particular field. But like you said, after a few years, the school becomes less and less important.

    • says

      Yea that’s a good point. I agree that you do need a degree for some if not most fields but I really don’t think they are worth much beyond the actual piece of paper.

      Project engineer by chance?? ;)

  3. says

    I agree that degrees are mostly useful for getting your foot in the door. In a recent job I was working in the same position as someone from UC Berkeley (a pretty prestigious theatre school) and I went to a no-name state school. I think that after your first job, your degree become increasingly irrelevant and it absolutely turns into who you know and how well you’ve done in previous positions.

    • says

      Yea definitely, in fact there was a famous study(called the Ivy League Earnings Myth) that I read and wrote an article about on another site that I write for that basically said it’s all about the connections you make at the top schools like Harvard and Yale. The kids who have connections and get into Harvard but go to a state school will be just as well off as their Harvard counterparts. But the kids who come from low-income areas(ie have no connections) and go to Harvard and Yale fare much better than their counterparts who get in but choose a different less prestigious school.

      http://www.smartasset.com/blog/news/revealing-the-truth-about-college-rankings/

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  1. […] How people perceive who and how you are can make or break opportunities in your career or business. It doesn’t matter if you work for someone else as an employee or have started to venture out into self-employment: the workplace is incredibly competitive. If you manage your personal brand, you’ll have a leg up on your peers and it will be easier to stay one step ahead of all that competition. […]

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