“I have no idea where most of the people who worked for me went to college. I just know: Did they get stuff done or did they not?” former President Barack Obama said last week at a tech conference in Salt Lake City, Utah, before news of the arrests broke.
The parents who were arrested included Hollywood stars Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman and high-powered executives and attorneys who could afford to pay bribes to secure their children spots at top schools.
Students from the University of Southern California, where Lori Loughlin, best known as Aunt Becky from “Full House,” and fashion designer Mossimo Giannulli, sent their two daughters, can look forward to a starting salary of $62,000.
And while graduates of Yale have an average starting salary of $68,300 — twice as much as the $32,000 average salary for graduates from Mississippi Valley State University — attending an elite college isn’t just about hoping to make a few thousand dollars. There’s a prestige that comes with adding an elite school name to a resume. And it’s something that some of the world’s most influential people have in common.
More than 50 percent of women and more than 80 percent of men on Forbes’ Most Powerful list attended elite schools, according to an analysis published last year by Jonathan Wai, assistant professor of education policy and psychology at the University of Arkansas. At the Davos World Economic Forum, 90 percent of the academics went to elite schools, along with 40 percent of the CEOs who attend the private event in Switzerland every January. And of the billionaires listed by Forbes, more than 40 percent went to elite schools.
“I think it’s important to remember that where someone gets into school is in part a function of how well they scored on the SAT or ACT, assuming they are not admitted via legacy or athletic status where they have lower than typical test scores, and they did not cheat on the test. And studies have shown that the SAT and ACT predict success well after graduation,” Wai told NBC News.
For parents who see the school their child attends as another signal of their social status, the college admissions process can become a ruthless quest.
“Most parents, particularly upper class parents, attach enormous importance to the social and economic success of their children. They spare no expenditure of time or money in the pursuit of these goals,” Gregory Clark wrote in “The Son Also Rises: Surnames and the History of Social Mobility.”
“In these efforts, they seek only to secure the best for their children, not to harm the chances of others. But the social world only has so many positions of status, influence, and wealth,” Clark added.
Sarah Tursi, a psychotherapist in McLean, Virginia, an affluent suburb of Washington, said she has talked to teenagers who are stressed about the college admissions process and the pressure they’re getting from their parents.
“When you are in communities where people aren’t worried about the expense of college, where kids feel they can attend anywhere they are accepted, then it becomes about how prestigious the school is,” said Tursi. “Parents will attempt to manipulate their student’s résumé to try to get them into these high-prestige schools.”
While it depends on who you ask, and the data you crunch, to find an answer about whether a person’s chosen school really, truly matters, attending college and earning a degree is generally an achievement that opens new career opportunities and leads to higher lifetime earning potential.
Men with bachelor’s degrees earn $900,000 more in a lifetime, while women with degrees earn $630,000 more, according to data from the Social Security Administration, which also highlights the gender pay gap.
So, in the end, it might not necessarily matter where a person went to college. It’s the fact that they did.
And the good news is, there are always exceptions to the rule. Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, all self-made billionaires, dropped out of college. Kylie Jenner, the youngest billionaire on this year’s Forbes list, is the same age as college seniors, but isn’t pursuing a degree.
Alyssa Newcomb is an NBC News contributor who writes about business and technology.
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