Can you ever hope to find success and happiness if you don’t go to an elite college?
Amanda McHugh got her undergrad degree from Keene State College and her JD from New England Law | Boston. That she wasn’t at a prestige school never crossed her mind until classmates told her not to bother applying to fancy downtown law firms.
“They won’t take you unless you went to Harvard or a place like that,” McHugh remembers being told.
“It’s almost like I lucked out,” said McHugh, now a contracts negotiator at Raytheon BBN Technologies in Cambridge. “For me, it would be hard to be happy if I was working 85 or 90 hours a week.”
News flash! Even as the nation feasts on the college admissions scandal — in which wealthy parents that included Hollywood celebrities were so frantic to get their kids into big-name universities they allegedly committed felonies — those associated with non-bribeworthy schools say it’s possible to not go to Yale, USC, and other top schools and still be perfectly happy and successful.
On March 12, the country briefly took a break from the Trump show to froth over the admissions scandal. The US attorney in Boston charged dozens of parents, coaches, and college exam administrators in a multimillion-dollar bribery scheme aimed at getting kids into top schools through a so-called side door.
“It’s a shame what happened at those elite schools,” said Maureen Stokes, assistant vice president for communication and marketing at Worcester State University.
A public school such as hers, she said, can give a student an education — in learning how to deal with people from all walks of life, for example — that they won’t likely get at the most selective schools. “We are all here to learn about diversity and how to get along and that’s very important.”
Especially in Greater Boston, and in other big cities on the East and West coasts, the status obsession in higher education can be intense.
As Frank Bruni, author of the best-selling “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be,”
put it: “The degree of magic people attribute to these elite institutions is so out of whack.”
Among the many successful people without an Ivy degree is Howard Schultz, the billionaire former chief executive of Starbucks who, Bruni points out, “seems to do well for himself.” Schultz went to Northern Michigan University.
As Schultz and others who have survived the trauma of not attending an Ivy can attest, in many or most fields, any perceived stigma recedes.
Josie Kolbech, a designer who graduated from Mount Ida College a decade ago (the school has since folded, its campus acquired by UMass Amherst) said that in her early years after graduation, hanging around with friends who went to competitive schools, she could “feel the comparison.”
“We didn’t have careers, so what you talked about was where you went to school,” said Kolbech, a designer at Edmit, a Boston startup that helps families untangle the confusing costs of higher education.
“But where I am now in my career, it doesn’t matter if someone went to Harvard,” she said. “I’m often sitting in the same room and working on the same projects as people who went to Ivy League schools.”
Despite the well-documented success of non-Ivy grads, in many communities parental fear of not having a brag bumper sticker for the car is real, said Newton therapist Deborah Offner.
“A lot of parents say they don’t care — they just want the kids to go ‘where they’ll be happy.’ But the kids tell a different story,” she said. “The parents don’t have to say a word but the kids know what the expectation is. In affluent communities there is tremendous snobbery.”
The admissions bribery scandal isn’t without its positives. And those benefits extend beyond full employment for late-night comedians. The notion that getting into the right school is so important that it’s worth risking jail is so ridiculous it has surfaced a sense of pride in those who have thrived despite attending non-elite schools.
“Did you go to a community college?” journalist Yashar Ali, asked on Twitter on March 14. “Quote tweet this and say which community college you attended and what you’re doing today. . . . People who attend community colleges deserve to be as proud as people who attend Harvard.”
The tweet quickly picked up thousands and thousands of likes and retweets.
“I went to @deanza_college because I sucked at math,” tweeted DJ Patil. “Then got my doctorate in math and became the first U.S. Chief Data Scientist. Thank you community college and thank you to the amazing faculty that make it real.”
Chase Andrews was intending to go to Purdue University on a football scholarship until an injury derailed those plans. Now he is a junior at Endicott College in Beverly.
“I’d be naive to think when I’m applying for a job the status of your school doesn’t matter,” he said. “I’ve constantly wondered if when I graduate, will it be any different to an employer if my resume said Purdue University instead of Endicott College?”
Then Andrews thought about the three internships he’s already had and loved, and others he is applying for, and decided he is probably better off at Endicott, with its strong internship emphasis. “I will take experience over status any day of the week.”
But education specialists say the problems with college admissions run so much deeper than a bunch of entitled parents allegedly trying to pay their kids’ way into school.
Daniel Rubin, head of the guidance department at Newton South High School, regularly hears kids say things along the lines of “I know it’s important to go to a good college if I’m going to have career success.”
“We challenge them and say, ‘What do you mean by a good college?’ ”
The answer, he said, is usually some place that’s hard to get into.
“I worry that the entire system — colleges, high schools, parents — we’ve all been complicit in getting to where we are.”