Harvard Said “No”? Be Happy!

Editor’s Note: Admission rates this year are at an all-time low, while anxiety about the college admission process remains high. Carol Graham and Michael O’Hanlon write that an Ivy League degree does not necessarily determine happiness or success.

This year’s college admission process in the United States was by most measures tougher than ever. Only about 5 percent of applicants were accepted at Stanford and many admission rates at other schools were comparably daunting. Meanwhile, our nation’s teenagers are exposed to a background of noise about America’s supposed economic decline, which would seem only to increase the pressure to get a head start on that declining pool of available high-paying and highly satisfying careers. In the Washington, D.C. area, this sense of malaise was compounded this year by a spate of suicides at a prestigious local high school, with the common thread reportedly being a sense of anxiety about the future among the teenagers.

Of course, some of this story is timeless, and reflects the inevitable challenges of growing up in a competitive society. But much of it is over-hyped or simply wrong. We need to help our college-bound teenagers maintain a sense of perspective and calm as they face what is among life’s most exciting but also most stressful periods. As two proud Princeton grads, we recognize the value of a high-quality education and the social and professional networks that come with an Ivy League degree. But we also know from intuition and experience that a similar kind of experience is achievable in many, many other places in our country, fielding as it does the best ecosystem of higher education institutions in the history of the planet. And increasingly, there is a strong body of research to back this claim up.

Higher Education Is Important

First, though, it is worth noting one incontrovertible fact: higher education is important. Sure, there can be exceptions, and some people may not have the opportunity at a given point in life to pursue either a two-year or four-year college degree or graduate education. But it is a reality in America’s modern economy, due to trends with globalization and automation. Those with college degrees continue to do better than previous generations in this country; those without have seen their incomes stagnate or even decline on average for a generation now, as our colleague Belle Sawhill has shown. Another Brookings colleague, Richard Reeves, cites evidence that college graduates have higher marriage rates, higher wages, better health, greater job security, more interesting work and greater personal autonomy.

However, where you go to college matters less than if you go, by any number of measures. This is not to say it is unimportant. But whether you are interested in happiness while in college, satisfaction later in life or even raw monetary income, the correlation between gaining a Harvard degree and achieving nirvana is less than many 18-year-olds may be led to believe.

Begin with the question of happiness–a new and scientifically measurable arena of social science. It turns out you can learn a lot about how happy people are by asking them, and then applying common-sense statistical methods to a pool of data. For one of us, this has been the focus of research for over a decade. While money matters to happiness, after a certain point more money does not increase many dimensions of well-being (such as how people experience their daily lives), and in general, it is less important than good health or fulfillment at the workplace, on the home-front and in the community. Happier people, meanwhile, tend to care less about income but are more likely to value learning and creativity. And they are also likely to have more positive outlooks about their own futures, outlooks which in turn lead to better labor market and health outcomes on average.

An Atmosphere For Success

Yale or Amherst graduates are no more likely to find happiness than those who attended less prestigious schools. A new Gallup poll, inspired largely by Purdue president Mitch Daniels, finds that the most important enduring effects of the college experience on human happiness relate to personal bonds with professors and a sense of ongoing intellectual curiosity, not to GPA or GRE scores.

America can provide this kind of stimulation and this kind of experience at thousands of its institutions of higher learning. To be sure, elite universities, with their higher percentage of dedicated and outstanding students, create an atmosphere that can be more motivating. Yet it can also be much more stressful. Students at somewhat less notable institutions may need a bit more self-motivation to excel in certain cases, but they may also find professors who are every bit as committed to their education as any Ivy Leaguer and perhaps more available on average.

It is true that networks of fellow alums from the nation’s great universities are often hugely helpful to one’s career prospects. But a surprising number of institutions in our country have such networks of committed graduates, professors and other patrons. And while Harvard grads may be a dime a dozen in a place like D.C., those hailing from somewhat less known or prestigious places arguably watch out for each other even more, compensating to a large extent for their smaller numbers.

Even on the narrower subject of financial success, the issue is not cut and dried. Sure, the big and prestigious universities tend to be richer, and their graduates on average make more money. But much of that is because the more motivated and gifted students tend to choose the elite schools in the first place, driving up the average regardless of the quality of education. For the 18-year-old who was just turned down by his or her top couple of college choices and having to settle for a “safety” school, it is not clear that this turn of fate really matters for long-term financial prospects. Assuming comparable degrees of drive and motivation, students appear to do just as well elsewhere. In 2004, Mathematica economist Stacy Dale compared students who willfully went to less prestigious schools with their cohorts at the most prestigious universities and showed little discernible income differential.

America is blessed by a wonderful new generation of young people; as parents of five of them, we see this every day. Maybe those of us who have been through some of life’s ups and downs need to work harder to help them take down the collective stress level a notch or two. No graduating child should be unhappy because they are going to their second or third choice of college next fall. With the right attitude and encouragement, they will likely do well—and be happy—wherever they go.