How your college choices can affect your career

January 31, 2018

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The more prestigious the college, the bigger the future pay-check — for a long time this has been the formula for choosing a college or university for many prospective students and their parents. But it’s not that simple.

Statistics show that while this rule of thumb holds true for degrees in business and the liberal arts, in areas like engineering, technology, maths and sciences (STEM) the name of the college does not really affect future earnings. In fact, the difference in earnings is miniscule, especially when compared to the difference in tuition fees between prestigious and less-renowned schools. On the other hand, business graduates from elite colleges earn approximately 18% more than graduates from less competitive institutions.

The explanation for the discrepancy between STEM and business and arts degrees is rather speculative, yet plausible. Science curricula are very standardised across different universities, so the skills learned by students at elite and less-prestigious colleges are basically the same. Also, employees in these industries tend to value individual skills more than titles, and people often get hired after passing test assignments that override the weight of degrees.

In terms of business and arts graduates, however, resumes tend to matter more, so having a degree from a top-ranking university helps one’s hiring prospects. Another explanation is to do with the non-academic benefits of elite universities. Careers in business and arts are very much influenced by the connections that aspiring professionals forge during their college years. Elite colleges tend to offer more powerful networks of potential employers and alumni which can translate into references, mentorships and job offers, and later on — into bigger salaries for those graduates.

If this makes you feel uncertain about your future, there is an excellent way to “correct” the effects of differences between elite and less-prestigious universities: internships. These help you acquire both the skills needed in real-life jobs as well as useful professional connections. Having hands-on experience and being accustomed to your chosen industry is an advantage that will put you ahead of your competitors from higher-ranking schools.

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