Do Elite Colleges Help your Salary as a Software Engineer?

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The Wall Street Journal had an excellent article about elite colleges and their relationship to potential earnings for graduates. You can read the original article here.

The shocking conclusion:

for business and other liberal-arts majors, the prestige of the school has a major impact on future earnings expectations. But for fields like science, technology, engineering and math, it largely doesn’t matter whether students go to a prestigious, expensive school or a low-priced one—expected earnings turn out the same

In other words, for fields like computer science, the school does not matter.

This completely surprised me. Like everyone else, I assumed you’d earn more with a degree from Stanford or MIT than you would graduating from a random state school.

For better or worse, I went to one of these “selective schools.”

I went to Washington University in St Louis, which is usually in the top 10 or 20 in the national rankings.

During my time there, I was unhappy. I was conflicted because my parents were paying a boatload of money for me to attend college, but the teachers were bad, the curriculum was hard, and I always felt like I was failing. I went from smart-ass in highschool to dumb-ass in college.

I constantly thought about changing schools. If it wouldn’t have cost so much in lost credits to switch, I probably would have. Then I wouldn’t have felt so bad about spending my parents’ hard earned money.

So I didn’t switch, and I graduated a semester early in December of 2008. After a lot of pain and stress, I made it through, and I went off to a job at Google. For all my complaints and unhappiness, I wound up with a good education and a good job.

Still, I didn’t attribute my success to my school. There were many things I had done on my own that had nothing to do with Wash U. Some examples:

  • I always worked summers at programming jobs to gain experience.
  • Starting my sophomore year, I sought out a mentor in a research lab. He hired me for a few dollars an hour to write code for routers. That experience allowed me to leap frog the other students in ability, and I was able to go from no programming experience to Google in 3.5 years.

Both of these things were school independent. A student could have done them anywhere, gained experience rapidly, and wound up in the same place I did.

So do I agree with the Wall Street Journal?

Yes and No. I still resent many of the experiences I had with the education system at Wash U, and I do believe you could achieve great things at lesser named schools, for a fraction of the cost. If you’re willing to put in the work, you can do anything anywhere.

But I wouldn’t change going to Wash U.

It exposed me to ridiculously smart people. For example, while I had taken college level Calculus 2 during highschool, I encountered people who had already taken Calculus 3 and Linear Algebra before ever setting foot on a college campus. Some kids had already tested out of freshman Chemistry and Physics while I was left struggling through them.

Basically I felt like a failure. The people around me were so much more accomplished than I was. I had always identified as one of the “smart ones” in my highschool, but I couldn’t say that at Wash U. Some of my classmates were and still are the smartest people I’ve ever met.

Feeling intimidated can be a good thing. It’s a common meme that you’re the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with, and I was spending time with ridiculous people.

It made me step up my game and aggressively compensate for my perceived shortcomings. It made me feel like shit, but it also allowed me to grow. I learned how to work hard and to believe in myself. When I was eventually able to succeed in this intense environment, it gave me a tremendous boost in confidence, which set me up for further success in my professional life.

If I had gone to a school where I was allowed to be a smart-ass again, I would have never had any of these formative experiences.

I still resent the huge cost of tuition at these private institutions, but for me, I think it was worth it. I gained too much personally to think any other way.

So I don’t care that my starting salary could be just as high going to another school; I probably would never have done anything extracurricularly at another school, and I would have never wound up where I did. The intensity of Wash U drove me to excel. Do I believe you have to go to a “selective” school to get into Google? Of course not. I had awesome colleagues who came out of all sorts of institutions.

But personally, I don’t think I would have made it without Wash U kicking me in the ass.

Will I send my son or daughter to a selective school if tuition continues to appreciate at 3-5% every year? I don’t know. At some point the cost becomes too prohibitive to justify the experience. We will have to see what happens to the education system over the next 10 or 20 years.

photo credit: Students in library via photopin (license)