The Long and Winding Road

For half the school, these next few months will be harrowing. For Seniors, applications are coming to a close, as decisions loom in the distance. For Uppers, the journey’s just begun, and we are facing a long road ahead of us. It’s all because of one word – college.

The college process will soon take over our lives, if it hasn’t already. What we say, how we act in class, what we do outside, how we spend our summers, what we think about every day will all be shadowed by the inevitability of applying to college. Call it a journey of “self discovery” or of “personal growth,” but when it comes down to it, we’re just looking at where we’ll go and how that will define our success in life.

Getting into a “good school” has become synonymous with success. Consider the sentence “Joe graduated from Harvard three years ago!” Most of us would assume that Joe is currently living a successful life, defined by a respectable job and income, and will continue to find success. It’s ingrained in our brains to think that any individual who comes out of an Ivy League school is automatically a successful individual. We think that college is the only start to a life of success. Implicit in statements like “I’ll never get into a good college!” is the unstated belief that “if I don’t go to a prestigious school, my life will be in shambles.”

But attending an elite college doesn’t define the future you will hold anwwd certainly isn’t a necessary step for success. A respected degree doesn’t mean you will necessarily get far in life. In fact, the college you go to really doesn’t matter at all.

Both Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard. Steve Jobs dropped out of small, non-Ivy League Reed college after just one semester. In fact, according to a recent Forbes article, 15 percent of the Forbes Fortune 400 individuals don’t have a college degree from any university at all. Many would view them as “successful people” in the modern sense, meaning they have good jobs and money. Therefore, college shouldn’t be viewed as the only road to riches.

Statistically, the people coming out of top-notch universities don’t account for much of the successful population, defined by our standards of success. It’s simply because there are just too many people graduating every year and there just aren’t not enough “successful” opportunities to go around for everyone. Not everyone graduating from an Ivy with an economics degree can go on to become a successful venture capitalist.

A good college doesn’t secure your shot at success, and with the current economic situation in America, everyone’s chance of finding a job and opportunity is down, regardless of the school they attended. An August 2011 New York Times article, “Generation Limbo: Waiting It Out,” talked about recent Ivy League graduates taking dead-end jobs and “waiting for their careers to begin.”

A study conducted from 1976 to the 1990s by the National Bureau of Economic Research of 6,335 college graduates examined graduates from colleges where entering students have high SAT scores, a marker of an elite school, in comparison to post-graduation income. It was found that graduating from said “elite college” didn’t pay off in terms of post-graduate income. Furthermore, the study found that students who applied to elite schools and didn’t attend them are more likely to earn higher incomes than their counterpart elite school graduates who did, according to the Bureau. This information can be found in an opinion piece by Martha O’Connell, “What You Do vs. Where You Go” in the New York Times Feature “Room For Debate,” published this past March.

Frankly, what really drives success isn’t where you go to school, but what you happen to encounter in life and what you make of it. In his book “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell examines how and why certain men and women are so accomplished in society and asserts that people vastly underestimate that success happens not because an individual wills it to, for example by attending a college, but because of factors that individuals themselves have no control over. Some of the biggest factors are merely just being born at the right time, a time when your particular qualities and ideas are something the world is looking for.

Even on the smaller scale of college admissions, success and failure are often built on chance. Sure, college can be a stepping stone to help you gain exposure to the world, but it shouldn’t be counted on to guarantee the big bucks. Often success can come down to luck not the college diploma you hold.

I’m not trying to say that people shouldn’t go to college or that people shouldn’t strive to attend the best colleges. College degrees are an enormous aid in securing employment and validating your credentials – and getting you ready to capitalize on the luck that comes. By all means, work your hardest to attend the college that you define as the “best.”

What I am saying, though, is that people shouldn’t strive for these top colleges and enroll in them viewing college as the guarantor of success or view their cause as lost if they get rejected.

Instead, college should be taken as more of a continuation of developing yourself, something that started when you were a toddler, continued in elementary school, has taken us full force at Andover, and – if you are game for it – will continue until the day you die. The importance of college should be placed on how it can change us and what we do in college. College will not lead us to predestined success, but its environment will groom us into people who have a shot at finding it.

In the study mentioned above, the bureau also found that “evidently, students’ motivation, ambition and desire to learn have a much stronger effect on their subsequent success than average academic ability of their classmates.” New York Times writer Loren Pope claims that the more creative, collaborative and critical learning a student can engage in with peers, faculty and the community, the more likely he or she has a chance at future success.

Most colleges in the United States, even if they don’t carry the label of Ivy League or some other mark of elitism, strive to build this kind of environment. Some even argue that smaller colleges, possibly less well known, are better at providing such an environment.

In the end, college is not the only road to success. Many of our successes begins with the word “college” and we groom and prep for the college experience from a young age. But in the end, college is just another experience, and where you go doesn’t matter half as much as what you do once you get there.

Nicole Ng is a three-year Upper from Hong Kong and an Associate Arts and Leisure Editor for The Phillipian.