Does it really matter, in life or a career, if you went to an elite school? That depends on whom you ask.
Cretin-Derham Hall senior Tommy DeMarco sorted through brochures of the colleges he was planning to apply to in the living room of his home in St. Paul last fall. Hes not aiming for one of the mostselective schools. His father, Greg DeMarco, said, Theres no end to the good schools. Its what feels good to him.
Alone in her living room on a December Saturday, Luna Yang flipped open her laptop to check the Massachusetts Institute of Technology website to see if she'd been admitted in the first round of application decisions. She had loved the "warm nerdiness" of the campus when she visited last summer, and MIT was one of her top college choices.
The website flashed up, followed by Luna's name. Her admission had been deferred. It wasn't outright rejection, but she'd have to wait until March to see if she was admitted.
Tears stung her eyes and she slumped on the sofa. Luna was not used to academic setbacks. "It was kind of tough," she said later. Luna is an outstanding student with a perfect SAT score. She's already been admitted to the University of Michigan and has been offered a full ride at the University of Minnesota. She knows she'd get a good education at either one. But the mystique of schools like MIT and Harvard tugs at her.
With the number of high school graduates soon peaking and more students than ever wanting to go to college, getting into an elite or selective college is harder than ever. At Harvard, applications increased by more than 20 percent in the past six years, but the school still has room for only about 1,675 freshmen.
On the U of M's Twin Cities campus, as of early January freshman applications were up more than 80 percent over the same time in 2002. But the freshman class next fall will be roughly the same size as it was five years before: about 5,300.
Does it really matter for your life or career if you go to Harvard instead of the U of M? Or Carleton instead of St. John's University?
Luna thinks so. "Getting an education from a top-notch college does make a difference," she said. "Everyone knows about Harvard. It's constantly talked about. It has credibility and quality associated with the name."
But Marilee Jones, admissions director at MIT, says it's not that important. She uses herself as an example. She's a graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute -- an outstanding university, but not MIT.
"You don't need to go to those schools to lead a good life or be a leader," she said. "You can succeed by going to any school."
That's true, said Todd Peterson, owner and CEO of Underwater Adventures at the Mall of America. But he believes his two Harvard degrees have been an advantage. The past president of the Harvard Club of Minnesota says the effect of going to school with brilliant peers and networking with those alums can't be underestimated.
"I wouldn't have mixed it up with students from around the world," he said. "The name itself just speeds things up and adds credibility."
Hype vs. reality
So where did some of Minnesota's most influential citizens get their undergraduate degrees?
Gov. Tim Pawlenty has two degrees from the U of M. Sen. Amy Klobuchar got her degree from Yale; Sen. Norm Coleman got his from Hofstra. Leaders in the state Senate and House have graduate degrees from Harvard, though their undergraduate degrees are more likely to come from places like the U of M, Gustavus Adolphus and Southwest State University.
Target CEO Robert Ulrich is a Gopher, while the big Gopher, U of M President Robert Bruininks, is an alum of Western Michigan University. Cargill CEO Warren Staley got his bachelor's degree at Kansas State University. General Mills CEO Steve Sanger graduated from DePauw University, a fine private school in Indiana. And 3M CEO George Buckley holds degrees from the University of Huddersfield, an English school most Americans have never heard of.
This year, 13 of the 32 U.S. Rhodes Scholars were from Ivy League schools. Nineteen came from other schools, including the U of M and Montana State. In 2005 and 2006, the Ivy League had seven Rhodes Scholars while 25 came from other schools.
Susan Sykes, an education consultant from Hopkins, believes the Ivy League effect on job and life is fleeting.
"The name of the college you attended might be a factor in your first job, but after that, it's performance," she said.