Why an Ivy League Degree Is Worth It – At Virtually Any Cost

There have been countless studies showing that accomplished, intelligent people will be successful whether they attend an elite school or not. For example, this came up first  when I googled “Is an Ivy League degree worth it?” Most of these studies focus on one solitary measurement – income (specifically, income after 5, 10, 20 years of graduation). They therefore conclude that the absurd lengths that students (and their parents) go to gain admittance to these places are largely illogical.

Well, I never thought that the defense of an Ivy League education would be viewed as “contrarian”. But in today’s post I actual do argue against the “overrated” argument. In my observation (and experience), a degree from an elite school can be worth the cost, even if it entails a financial hardship for much of a person’s working life. There are numerous reasons for this, few of which are mentioned in these ROI studies:

  • Income is notoriously hard to measure, and the highest earners may be understating. Where are these studies getting their income information from?Self reported? W2s? Tax returns?  A sharp Ivy Leaguer will know how to hide their income from the tax man – looks at Mitt Romney’s $102m IRA, for example ( thought you could only contribute $6,000/ year to an IRA- that’s some serious compounding, Mitt). W2s only tell part of the story (investment income, capital growth, etc. are not measured). And self reported measures are notoriously unreliable.
  • These studies equate “income” with financial success…but income is not (necessarily)  the best measure of financial success. An ambitious Harvard man may think nothing of income (was Mark Zuckerberg obsessed over his W2?), focusing more on building capital, a company, etc. In fact, many startup CEOs take a very nominal salary until their liquidation event (meaning when they go public or sell the company for a bushel of cash). Even corporate CEOs often make much of their money not from salary, but from gold plated exit packages or when stock options are exercised many years into their careers.
  • Most importantly, these studies miss the point. Attending an elite school isn’t about money (no matter how you measure it), it’s about status. Let’s face it, once Mom can tell her friends “Mattie is attending Harvard in the fall”, her job is pretty much done… quittin’ time for the tiger Mom! This is true even if precious Mattie gets an MFA and relies on Mom to pay her rent until she’s 40.
  • And the status benefit is even greater of course for the attendee themselves. It’s horribly unfair and not necessarily accurate …. But people with degrees from elite schools are viewed differently by hiring managers, clients, management, even society in general. I can tell you from personal experience that even 25 years after getting an MBA from Wharton, people still take me far more seriously than they should due to that accreditation.

And when the world tells you that you are more capable, smarter, more talented… rightly or not, you start to believe it. So you are more likely to ask for that raise, stretch yourself for your next promotion, take financial and career risks – all of which, in the long run, contribute to a healthier fiscal outcome (you’re more likely to get rich).

It may be unfair, but from my observation, it’s the world we live in. So try to get in (or get your kids in) to that Ivy League school. And if you can’t (like most of us), pursue other avenues to success (there are so many). But don’t kid yourself into thinking that a degree from one of these places doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t… but it does.

Has your elite degree given you an unfair advantage in life? Or have you been on the flip side, discriminated against because you failed to go to the “right” school? Tell me all about it in the comments!

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