A Network Connecting School Leaders From Around The Globe
Whenever I meet up with friends from Penn or high school classmates that attended other top schools, the conversation always turns to a familiar topic:
What would life be like if I hadn’t attended a top college?
As someone who was obsessed with college admissions in high school, I fully bought into the myth that higher education at an elite school would make life easier. Better job opportunities, amazing connections and alumni network, and a sense of confidence that we would carry for the rest of our lives.
And to be honest — all of this was largely true. I had multiple six figure job offers in consulting and finance upon graduation. I was able to peak behind the curtain and examine the lives of the true global elite. And regardless of my work experience, college is still a major talking point in most interviews.
But all of this obscured the true opportunity cost of attending an elite school. And based on conversations with hundreds of similar grads, psychologists, and even professors teaching at elite colleges, there seems to be a general consensus that there are enormous hidden costs associated with a top school.
Setting aside the obvious (and very real) risk of accumulating hundreds of thousands of dollars in student debt, graduating from a top school can prove detrimental in the following ways:
We are consistently told that elite schools open doors to elite jobs. This is true but it glosses over the fact that these jobs are unappealing in nature to most people, whether they could get them or not. It also neglects to mention that these “elite jobs” will become your only options if you want to “maintain your upward trajectory.”
You pretty much have a few options when you graduate from an elite school:
If you are unsure of what to do, you might look at academia or traditional higher prestige graduate school. You can become a doctor, lawyer or perhaps work for a fledgling startup, if money is not an issue.
At most schools, people pursuing law and medicine usually have long desired to work in these fields. I can’t count how many friends became doctors (especially surgeons) because they were decent at math and science, didn’t want to work in engineering, and were to risk adverse to look into other options.
Similarly, law school has become the go to place for well to do, intelligent (yet aimless) grads from top schools. As one acquaintance told me at a recent party, “It’s three whole years of substantial studying but a pretty decent break from having to get a real job. Plus it will get my parents off of my back.”
It’s three whole years of substantial studying but a pretty decent break from having to get a real job. Plus it will get my parents off of my back.
These are the same people who are bored out of their minds when I talk about anything remotely related to the legal field. Clearly, they do not want to be lawyers. But if you’re a humanities major who isn’t sure what you want to do with your life, this becomes an attractive option. Many of these students have family that will gladly pay for any graduate degree. Even the ones drowning in debt from their undergraduate education might pick this path. After all, you’re already in too deep — both financially and mentally.
There is also the killing of positive career ambitions. I value entrepreneurship, but rarely see people who are willing to take the risk to do something different, despite having great ideas with potentially monumental impact. Mind you — I went to school with a number of friends in Wharton. You would think that of all school that a few business savvy entrepreneurs might emerge, Wharton would certainly be a major producer of business. But this is rarely the case. Why? Because while many of these students were once adventurous risk takers, they become heavily risk adverse, to the point where they would rather work a job they hate, in a city they can barely afford, and hang out with people they can hardly stand — just so that they don’t have to feel the humiliation of removing Goldman Sachs from their LinkedIn title.
This one is perhaps the most insidious and it starts in early on in college. You begin to believe that taking on enormous amounts of stress and even doing things that are unethical (or even illegal) are all just “part of the game.” As long as you can pull it all together by your 8 a.m. class or 9 a.m. interview, it doesn’t matter that you haven’t slept in three days or that your partner on a group project has figured out a way to sabotage another group’s project, to give you guys an edge when graded on a curve.
Not only do many of these people need a general wake up call — telling them they need to look at the bigger picture and focus on living a healthier lifestyle — many are in immediate need of help.
I learned this the hard way when I got an email over winter break at Penn informing me that a student in my Spanish class had jumped to her death from a building in Philadelphia. The death of my classmate gained national news attention because she was pretty, smart, an athlete, and seemingly had everything going for her.
In all these cases, a false sense of inadequacy seemed to be at the root of the problem. Could there have been other mental health issues unrelated to attending an elite school? Of course. But based on my personal knowledge of these people, I find it hard to believe that their hypercritical environment played no role.
While a healthy work-life balance and mental health are crucial issues, perhaps the worst of the unspoken dark sides of attending a top college is the loss of freedom many people experience.
If you really dig into why most people wanted to go to a top school, the answer is pretty much the same — they wanted some sort of freedom. This could be financial freedom for someone who wants a better life, personal freedom for those who never felt accepted, or even the freedom to impact change and make a positive difference in the world.
But unless you can move past your degree, make choices based on what you need and not what you think others expect, and ultimately reject the perceptions of your family, friends, and coworkers (no easy task), your elite college degree will only serve as an ever-tightening noose and will ultimately hinder you from finding happiness.