What Does an Ivy League Degree Get You?

Going to an Ivy League college is part of the American dream. But does a degree from Harvard mean a better job and better pay? Experts disagree.

Elite investment banking and consulting firms like Goldman Sachs and McKinsey recruit heavily at Harvard, Princeton and other Ivy League schools. But recently, major pharmaceutical, manufacturing and commercial banking companies have shifted recruiting resources away from the Ivies in favor of institutions like the University of Illinois, Purdue and Texas A&M, where they have greater success attracting and retaining high-caliber grads.

"On the whole we've found Ivy League graduates to be very bright and supremely confident," says an executive who recruits for a major chemical company. "But that doesn't necessarily mean they perform better than employees who have graduated from other colleges. In fact, we've found their sense of entitlement can be a negative. They tend not to stay on the job long and many overestimate the value they bring to our organization."

If you look at the top "self-made" billionaires on Forbes' Richest Americans list, only one holds an Ivy League degree: Warren Buffett who has a masters of science from Columbia. Many others are gasp! college dropouts: Bill Gates (well, Harvard, but still a dropout); Microsoft's Paul Gardner Allen (Washington State dropout); Oracle's Larry Ellison (University of Illinois dropout), and Dell's Michael Dell (University of Texas dropout).

Studies comparing the lifetime earnings of Ivy Leaguers versus talented graduates of less prestigious universities say it is inconclusive whether an Ivy League degree offers a higher rate of return. Yet it would be ludicrous to say employers aren't influenced by where a candidate went to school. Just ask Steve Menack, who got his bachelor's degree from the University of Arizona before earning his master's at Harvard's JFK School of Government and graduating from Columbia Law School.

"There is no question my Ivy League education opened more doors than would have been opened with the same credentials from a non-Ivy League school," says Menack, who worked for a prestigious New York law firm before going into private practice as a mediator. "I got my first job after reminiscing with the hiring partner about the American Presidency course at Harvard."

Another bonus the Ivy League offers is stimulating interaction among some of the world's top professors and students. "Everyone you interact with is of a high-functioning caliber, so you are constantly challenged to be your best," Menack adds. (Though sometimes the competition gets cutthroat. Menack recalls a student at Columbia who went so far as to rip pages out of his classmates' textbooks.)

"There is an aura about an Ivy League education that gives you instant credibility," says Kathleen L'Esperance, who got her bachelor's degree from Michigan State before earning her MBA at Columbia. L'Esperance went back to school at the urging of her former boss at JP Morgan Chase. She candidly admits that while it was a wonderful experience, she doesn't think getting the Ivy League degree improved her performance -- but it did raise people's perception of her performance!

Jay Matthews, Harvard grad, alumnus recruiter and author of Harvard Schmarvard: Getting Beyond the Ivy League to the College That is Best for You, speculates in his book that graduates of the Ivy League generally do well not so much because of the school they attended, but because of the character, talent, intelligence and drive that got them accepted to the school in the first place.

Yet while the value of an Ivy League degree can be debated, just about everyone will agree that given the connections students make and the number of recruiters attracted to their campuses, these schools give their students an advantage early in their careers. In the long run, however, a person's experience, performance and ability to relate to others matter far more than the seal on their diploma.

Next: 10 High-Paying Jobs -- No Degree Required >>

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