Gallup: A prestigious college isn’t a clear ticket to career happiness or personal fulfillment.

collegesThe latest shoe to drop in the growing notion that a college education may not be all it’s cracked up to be comes in the form of a Gallup survey released this month that reveals that attending a prestigious institution of higher learning won’t make a person any happier in life or work when compared to graduating from a less selective one.

The Gallup survey of nearly 30,000 college graduates in all age groups, which was conducted in concert with researchers from Purdue University, asked respondents how they were doing in life across a range of factors such as income and “engagement” in their jobs.

Interestingly, the Gallup research was advocated by former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, now the president of Purdue University, who reported to The Wall Street Journal that he had encountered a lack of benchmarked data to measure the value of a college degree.

“There is a lot we don’t know about higher education, and there is a sense it’s skating on its reputation,” Mr. Daniels remarked.  “We needed to know with more rigor how well the experience is serving people.”

The resulting survey conducted by the Gallup organization found that fewer than 40% of the college graduates surveyed feel “engaged at work” — in that they enjoy what they do on a daily basis and are intellectually and emotionally connected to their work.

An even lower percentage – just 11% – thought of themselves as “thriving” in all of the major aspects of their lives such as financial stability, having a strong social network, and feeling a sense of purpose.

And how do graduates of the most “selective” institutions fare against others?  According to Gallup, there’s no discernable difference at all.

That is correct:  The survey found that graduating from a Top 100 school has no bearing on the level of future happiness or fulfillment in work or in life.

college debtWhat does have a big impact — in a negative way — is college debt.  Only about 2% of respondents who reported between $20,000 and $40,000 in student loan debt reported that they are “thriving.”

On the positive side of the ledger, what does seem to correlate with greater happiness and fulfillment is having had the experience of a professor take an interest in the student.  These teachers served as a mentor or helped make the learning experience exciting for the student.

The Gallup survey found that those kinds of experiences tend to translate into more optimism, curiosity and engagement in later life and careers — leading to greater fulfillment.

I have immediate family members who have attended all types of higher educational institutions — from Ivy League schools and “New Ivies” to private colleges, public universities and even community colleges.  Time and again, I’ve seen this phenomenon play out just as the Gallup survey suggests.

The fact is … broadly speaking, American higher education is quite good.  One can receive a good education almost anywhere, provided a student studies hard and takes advantage of the opportunities that are available (internships, work-study programs, exchange programs and and so forth).

It wasn’t so true a generation ago.  Back then, the prestigious schools had clear advantages in terms of their top educational staffs, great libraries, and worldwide connections in the educational and business communities.

Today, thanks to the Internet, distance learning and more people with PhDs, even the less selective schools have quality staffing, access to unlimited “virtual” library resources, and similarly stronger connections worldwide.

There continues to be a difference between the prestigious schools and the rest of the pack, of course.  At a place like Amherst or Williams, essentially all of the students are smart as a whip and highly motivated, whereas that’s not going to be the case at a state university.

But at all of the schools, the best students are actually very similar across the board … and they have similar opportunities available to apply to their advantage.

On top of this, there are many fields of study where the “best” education you can get isn’t going to be at an Ivy League school.  Think about the ag degrees at Iowa State University (Ames) or the structural engineering coursework at the Missouri University of Science & Technology (Rolla) as just two examples.

Bottom line, here’s where things stand:  If students want to learn and are willing to study hard … they can get a good education at pretty much any school they choose to attend in America.  And it will lead to a fulfilling professional and personal life later.  “Prestige” has very little to do with it.

2 thoughts on “Gallup: A prestigious college isn’t a clear ticket to career happiness or personal fulfillment.

  1. A student who leaves a college with a sense of entitlement is far less appealing to an employer compared to a hard-working person who is humbled by what he/she has yet to learn.

    The graduate with an “entitlement mentality” is also much more likely to face disappointment with real life after college.

  2. I’m not sure it’s a “sense of purpose” or “happiness” that kids are looking to buy when they apply to Harvard or Yale or Princeton. I suspect most are looking for prestige and peer group.

    In middle-class America, where accomplishment conveys royalty, an acceptance letter from an Ivy League school is the equivalent of a knighthood. A degree is a peerage.

    After that … well, I’m not sure it matters. Those kids figure that it’ll all work out somehow.

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