College: Does a big name matter?

  • Article by: MARY JANE SMETANKA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 18, 2007 - 8:42 PM

Does it really matter, in life or a career, if you went to an elite school? That depends on whom you ask.

Tommy DeMarco sorts college brochures
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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. He’s not aiming for one of the mostselective schools. His father, Greg DeMarco, said, “There’s no end to the good schools. It’s what feels good to him.”

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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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.

That's what Greg DeMarco thinks, too. He's the dad of Cretin-Derham Hall senior Tommy DeMarco, who has the credentials to aim at a top-tier college. Tommy is near the top of his class, is an athlete, musician and actor, takes difficult classes and won a statewide award for accomplished high school students.

But he doesn't want to go to Harvard. Though he and his dad have talked about the advantages of an Ivy League education, Tommy is aiming at a less elite school. His dad is fine with that.

"Well-known and well-regarded schools give back a quality experience, and you get networking out of it," Greg DeMarco said. "There's value in that to a point, but after that it's social status ...

"I know all the hype ... [But] there's no end to the good schools. It's what feels good to him."

The power of a name

Research on the subject is mixed. Some studies have found that attending an elite school pays off in higher wages over a lifetime, while others say it's the background of students -- things like parental education and income -- that has lasting effects.

One of the most recent studies, by Jennie Brand, a visiting professor at the University of North Carolina, found that the elite schools didn't add much benefit when students were compared to peers with similar socioeconomic backgrounds who went to less selective colleges.

"I guess I was somewhat surprised ... that there wasn't some effect, even small," Brand said. "One of the most interesting results is that people with the most disadvantaged backgrounds seem to benefit most [from attending an elite school]. That seems to make sense, because other kids can draw on their advantaged social background."

But Brand wonders if her study, which was done on men who entered college in the late 1950s and charted their progress up to age 60, might have different results if done today.

"It's very possible that today, because of greater [college] selectivity and because jobs are more likely to depend on a higher education level, that the effects have grown," Brand said. "But that's just extrapolation."

Luna said she knows that Michigan and the U of M's Carlson School of Management offer a great education and that she'd be learning with "intellectual, brilliant people." But she's applied to schools like Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Duke as well. She can't shake the conviction she's had since childhood that schools like MIT and Harvard "are the best."

It's not just reputation. Part of it, she concedes, is "the mystique of what I don't know." And part of it is a feeling that the East Coast is a place where she could blossom, "a very powerful place where you meet a lot of people who can change the world," she said last summer.

In the end, enrollment limits at the most elite schools mean that even the brightest and most accomplished of students may be rejected. Harvard has fewer than 1,700 freshmen, while MIT enrolls only about 1,000 freshmen.

That means parents and students need to check their egos and realize that getting into Yale doesn't guarantee a successful and happy life, said Frank Sachs, head of college counseling at the Blake School in Minneapolis.

College is "a match to be made, not a prize to be won," he said. "There are any number of terrific schools out there. ... You don't have to focus only on the top 50."

Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380 • smetan@startribune.comFOURTH IN AN OCCASIONAL SERIES

Coming in February: How do admissions committees decide who gets into college and who doesn't? A view from the inside.

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Tommy DeMarco sorts college brochures