A degree from a prestigious university might look great on the wall, but does it confer any real advantage in life? The answer to that question might once have seemed obvious. More recently, though, researchers have begun to take a serious look at the evidence – with some surprising results.

Consider, for example, the 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index, which surveyed nearly 30,000 graduates on how they were faring in their careers and the rest of their lives. The report’s conclusion: “It's not 'where' you go to college, but 'how' you go to college.” 

Next came a widely discussed book with a similar title and message, "Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania," by the New York Times columnist Frank Bruni. 

“For too many parents and their children, getting into a highly selective school isn’t just another challenge, just another goal,” Bruni wrote. “A yes or no from Amherst or Dartmouth or Duke or Northwestern is seen as the conclusive measure of a young person’s worth, a binding verdict on the life that he or she has led up until that point, an uncontestable harbinger of the successes or disappointments to come.” 

Who Went Where

Bruni marshaled evidence from a wide assortment of fields, including business, politics and the arts to show that a degree from a highly selective university is neither a prerequisite to success nor a guarantee of it.

For example, he noted that the CEOs of the 10 biggest companies in the Fortune 500 mostly attended state schools for their undergraduate degrees.

To see if smaller, more entrepreneurial outfits would be any different, Investopedia checked Inc. magazine’s latest annual list of the fastest-growing private companies in America. As it turns out, not one leader in the 10 highest-ranked companies appears to have attended an Ivy League college as an undergraduate. In fact, only one of their alma maters even held a spot in the top 50 on U.S. News & World Report’s highly influential and widely criticized list of Best National Universities (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which tied for 42nd place).

Author Bruni is among the U.S. News ratings’ many critics, calling them “largely subjective,” “easily manipulated,” and “about vestigial reputation and institutional wealth as much as any evidence that the children at a given school are getting an extraordinary education….”

The Grading Game

U.S. News may be the most prominent arbiter of the nation’s universities, but it hardly has the field to itself. Other magazines, including Money and Forbes, plus an assortment of websites, also rank schools on various measures. 

Payscale.com, for example, calculates what it calls a “20 year net ROI” for 1,223 colleges and universities, based on the salaries reported by visitors to its website. Net ROI, or return on investment, refers to the difference in median earnings over 20 years between someone who graduated from that college and someone who only finished high school, minus the school’s total four-year cost.

Perhaps not surprisingly, its list favors schools with high concentrations of majors in well-paying fields, such as engineering. Harvey Mudd College and Caltech, both highly rated by U.S. News, hold the top two spots. But Stevens Institute of Technology, third on its list, and Colorado School of Mines, at number four, might come as surprises to anyone familiar with the U.S. News ratings, where they place just 76th and 88th, respectively, among Best National Universities. The highest-rated Ivy on Payscale’s list is Princeton at number 9, while Harvard turns up at number 34 – probably the first time that’s ever happened.

Payscale also allows visitors to sort by major and learn, for example, where an art major can expect to get the best ROI for his or her four years. 

Even the Brookings Institution got into the grading game in April 2015 with a report called “Beyond College Rankings.” It assessed how attending a particular college affected a student’s future earning power, when compared with similar students at other colleges. 

The 20 four-year schools that added the most value in terms of mid-career earnings, Brookings found, didn’t include a single Ivy. Other prestigious universities were represented, such as Caltech, MIT, Rice and Stanford, but the rest were mostly middling performers in the selectivity sweepstakes. 

What Matters More

To many critics within academia, as well as the “real world” of business, almost any type of ratings misses the point. What’s more important than a school’s prestige, they argue, is the effort a student puts into his or her time there. That includes taking advantage of opportunities such as internships and study-abroad programs, and getting to know (and becoming known by) the right faculty members. A motivated student can get a great education at a supposedly so-so school; an unmotivated student can get a so-so education even at a highly selective one. 

Still, many parents remain convinced that getting into a top-tier school is essential to their children’s success in life, especially on the career front. And they’re willing to do – or spend – whatever it takes to make that happen. Witness the booming industry of SAT tutors and college admissions consultants. 

A Gallup poll from 2013 illustrated that disconnect. When American adults were asked how important they thought a job candidate’s alma mater is to hiring managers, fully 80% said it was either very or somewhat important. 

But when Gallup put the same question to business leaders – the people who are actually in a position to offer graduates jobs – the results were strikingly different. A majority of them, 54%, said it was not very important or not important at all. 

The Bottom Line

For many students, a degree from a “prestigious” university is no longer a ticket to success and happiness – if, indeed, it ever was. Numerous, less vaunted schools can prepare them just as well for their careers and lives. But students need to play an active role in the process and take full advantage of the opportunities those four years can provide.