COMMENTARY | Do graduates of certain universities get rich because they went to those schools…or did they get rich because they had connections and opportunities independent of their alma mater? As the college admissions game heats up, driven by desperation due to high tuition costs and staggering student loans, students and their parents are seeking the best deals. This is leading the drive to identify which colleges and universities offer the biggest returns for tuition dollars. According to CNN, PayScale has tracked graduates’ pay data, compiling which degrees from which alma maters generate the most average income over the first twenty years after college.
However, is graduates’ pay primarily linked to their alma mater, or do other factors, like pre-collegiate social capital, play an equally large role? Applicants should not blindly assume that a certain college or university, particularly an expensive one, will guarantee them greater job opportunities. Graduates from certain schools may make more money after college because of their social connections more so than their degree.
Basically, do people get rich because they graduated from Harvard…or do people graduate from Harvard because they are rich? This chicken-and-the-egg question must be asked before we encourage people to trust certain post-graduation income data when picking a college or university. Ignoring the importance of social capital in determining income could lead to gross mis-spending of tuition money. Students with little social capital, meaning they lack the social connections of the wealthy, could find themselves grossly overspending on Ivy League tuition, unlikely to have the same post-graduation successes of their better-connected and wealthier peers.
Schools’ assistance in generating social capital should be measured as well as post-graduation income, with schools’ programs linking students with employer-mentors listed for prospective applicants. Students without ample social capital should seriously consider these schools even if their average post-graduation income is not quite so high. Students should be honest about whether or not they are likely to need help attaining social capital because some schools, despite being “great values” when it comes to graduates making money, do little to foster students’ social connectedness.
Depending on a student’s intended field of study, developing social capital may be more or less important in determining career success. A middle-class business major might do well to attend a university that appears less cost-effective on paper but has many more mentoring and internship programs than a university that appears to guarantee graduates great wealth but offers few mentoring or internship programs. Simply pursuing the school or program with the highest post-graduation income may be misleading and ignore the fact that many of those graduates make such high pay because of their connections, not necessarily their education.