Does the College You Go to Matter?

While listing the “right” college on your resume can give you an initial leg up, other factors may matter more when securing a job.
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Jessica Bryant
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Jessica Bryant is a higher education analyst and senior data reporter for BestColleges. She covers higher education trends and data, focusing on issues impacting underserved students. She has a BA in journalism and previously worked with the South Fl...
Published on December 19, 2023
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Lyss Welding is a higher education analyst and senior editor for BestColleges who specializes in translating massive data sets and finding statistics that matter to students. Lyss has worked in academic research, curriculum design, and program evalua...
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Data Summary

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    In 2020, graduates of elite institutions had median earnings exceeding $104,000 just four years after graduating.[1]
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    But 10 years after graduating, former students of some lesser-known schools saw greater earnings gains.Note Reference [1]
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    And while private institutions with name recognition tend to offer more in financial aid, graduates of those schools are often saddled with more student debt.[2]
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    Only 9% of surveyed graduates in 2018 across variously ranked universities say that their institution's alumni network was helpful or very helpful in the job market.[3]
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    Overall, most hiring managers agree that while having a certain school on your resume might draw excitement, having the right skills and a demonstrated capability of producing quality work matters most.

While some schools can be appealing because of their name recognition and high standards, others may offer promising salaries and unique opportunities after graduation. It's only natural that as you weigh the pros and cons of one institution over another, you begin to wonder: Does the college you go to matter?

Below, we outline the facts — the costs, the salaries, the prestige, and more — so you can see for yourself if it really matters where you choose to go to school.

Does It Matter Where You Go to College? 4 Key Considerations

From costs and affordability to earnings potential and alumni networks, here is what you should consider when choosing a college.

Private Schools Offer Larger Financial Aid Packages — But Leave Students With Slightly More Debt

Public colleges and universities are known for having low sticker prices. But typically private institutions offer students more financial aid.

As of the 2019-2020 academic year, the top 10 universities with the best financial aid were all private institutions. Each of these 10 schools commits to meeting 100% of students' financial need without loans or strict income requirements.

But even with standout financial aid offerings, private institutions are more expensive. And because of this, students are much more likely to borrow money to attend.

As of 2022, just 40% of public college attendees took on student loan debt compared to 56% of private nonprofit college attendees and 65% of private for-profit college attendees.Note Reference [2]

Graduates of Some Schools Earn Better Salaries

While there is no guarantee that attending an Ivy League school or other prestigious institution will result in earning a high salary, graduates of some schools tend to fare better than others.

For example, four years after graduating from Harvard University, Stanford University, Carnegie Mellon University, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), graduates had annual median earnings exceeding $104,000 in 2020.Note Reference [1]

On average that same year, graduates of all institutions had median earnings of just $40,370 four years after graduating.Note Reference [1] So, by attending an elite university, some graduates saw earnings increase by nearly 160%.

By comparison, graduates of lesser-known institutions like St. Andrews University, Allan Hancock College, and Florida College had annual median earnings under $40,000 four years after graduating.Note Reference [1]

Ten years after completing their programs, however, graduates of some institutions saw much more significant boosts in their earnings.

Former students of Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (MCPHS) had annual median earnings of $76,630 four years after graduating. Ten years after graduating, median earnings increased by 62% to $124,126 per year.

Conversely, while Stanford University graduates had median earnings of $109,840 four years after graduating, 10 years after graduating, annual median earnings decreased by 2.6% to $106,987.

Top 10 Undergraduate Institutions With the Highest Median Earnings Four Years After Graduating, 2020
School Name Earnings Four Years Post-Graduation Earnings 10 Years Post-Graduation
California Institute of Technology $139,420 $104,210
University of Health Sciences and Pharmacy in St. Louis $139,350 $129,140
University of California, San Francisco $134,710 N/A
Samuel Merritt University $133,680 $129,440
Massachusetts Institute of Technology $129,390 $124,210
Harvey Mudd College $117,260 $128,220
Stanford University $109,840 $106,990
American University of Health Sciences $108,570 $73,140
Carnegie Mellon University $105,190 $111,060
Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering $105,170 $116,970
Source: College ScorecardNote Reference [1]

Not Every School Has a Robust Alumni Network — And That's OK

One of the greatest benefits of attending any college is becoming a part of a lifelong professional network. Connecting with alumni allows you to learn about unique career opportunities and build important connections within and outside your field.

Though this can hold true for some former students of institutions with expansive alumni networks, not every school offers a strong and helpful network. And even among schools thought to have notable alumni networks, not all graduates walk away feeling that it has helped.

In fact, in a 2018 Gallup survey, only 9% of college graduates reported that their institution's alumni network was helpful or very helpful in the job market. Even at the highest-ranked schools, just 16% of graduates said their alumni networks were helpful.Note Reference [3]

The helpfulness of alumni networks also didn't differ for graduates of different majors, genders, or types of institutions (i.e., public or private).Note Reference [3]

So while schools like Harvard, Stanford, Princeton, and Dartmouth are revered for their alumni networks, there is no guarantee that you will benefit from one after graduating. Furthermore, attending a school with a lesser-known alumni network does not necessarily mean you cannot benefit.

Online Degrees Are Generally Less Expensive — And More Respected Than You May Think

The demand for online education continues to grow, and so have employers' acceptance of online degrees.

A 2023 BestColleges survey found that 99% of school administrators anticipate an increasing or steady demand for new online programs over the next few years.

As recently as 2018, 61% of human resources leaders said they believe that online learning credentials are generally equal to in-person credentials or of greater quality.[4]

The vast majority of online learners say their degree was worth it and has already had or will have a positive return on investment.

Most online degree programs are priced by the number of credit hours you must take and are therefore similarly priced to in-person programs. However, pursuing an online degree allows you to avoid some costs, such as fees for on-campus housing, meals, parking, and other campus-based services like student health insurance. It also allows you more flexibility to work part time, or even full time, while studying.

If you are considering pursuing your degree online, check out our list of accredited online degree programs before choosing.

Do Employers Care What College You Attended?

We reached out to hiring managers, CEOs, and other executives at companies of all sizes to find out if the college you go to really matters. Here's what they had to say.

Prestige Still Matters to Some Employers, but It's Not What Matters Most

Some schools have great reputations. And that will catch the eye of many employers.

A recent study by College Rover found that Google is the top employer of graduates from prestigious institutions like Princeton, Yale, Harvard, MIT, and the University of Chicago.[5]

This shows that even though companies are increasingly dropping degree requirements, big-name organizations continue to employ a large number of graduates from elite universities.

But overall, employers still agree that a candidate's ability to do the job required matters most.

Sure, the reputation of a college can catch our attention, but it's not the only thing that matters, Mike Schmidt, partner at the law firm Schmidt and Clark, told BestColleges. We look beyond the alma mater because, honestly, real-world skills and experience count for a lot.

Debbie Chew, global SEO manager at Dialpad agrees, saying, It's the skills, experiences, and real-world achievements that steal the spotlight.

If you've got a candidate who's been hustling, gaining hands-on experience, and showcasing tangible skills, that often holds more weight than the college name on their diploma, Chew said.

Still, the “Right” School Tells Employers What Type of Candidate They Can Expect

According to Samantha Odo, chief operating officer at Canadian real estate platform PreCondo, a degree from the “right” institution allows employers to develop a baseline expectation of the candidate's knowledge and skills.

It's like a stamp of approval, a signal that the candidate has navigated a competitive environment successfully, Odo said.

Jeff Mains, founder and CEO of tech marketing company Champion Leadership Group, echoed her sentiments.

A degree from a prominent college generally signals quality to hiring managers, demonstrating a candidate's commitment, discipline, and competitiveness, he said. It can give candidates an edge in a competitive employment market by establishing decision-makers' trust.

Some Schools Can Unfortunately Work Against You

Just as many schools have great reputations, some institutions have less-than-stellar ones. And employers will sometimes take note of that.

This could happen if the hiring manager perceives the candidate as having attended a less prestigious institution without considering their skills and experiences, said Odo. It's a bias that, unfortunately, exists in some hiring processes. Ultimately, it's about proving that regardless of where they studied, they have what it takes to excel in the position.

The “Right” Degree Matters More in Some Industries Than Others

Because some schools are known for specific program offerings, having them on your resume when you're entering into a specific field can give you a leg up.

In business and finance, Harvard might carry more weight, while in the tech industry, places like MIT or Stanford could stand out, said Schmidt. However, don't underestimate the value of other well-regarded institutions or even specific programs within colleges that are renowned for certain fields.