The expensive-looking certificate of acceptance to Dartmouth College that we all received in the mail conjures up rosy images of our future as Dartmouth alumni. We, as Dartmouth students, are among the nation’s best, brightest and most likely to succeed. But what if our Dartmouth degree means no more than a degree from any other school? My undergraduate advisor introduced this unsettling topic at a recent floor meeting, catching us off guard as we finished our weekly game of “Wah!” a la Dartmouth Outing Club Freshmen Trips. What is the value of Dartmouth, he asked, if the renown of one’s college makes no real difference in one’s future salary?
My UGA was referring to a 1999 National Bureau of Economic Research study examining a group of students who had chosen universities of a lower caliber over the elite schools that had also admitted them. At age 40, those people actually earned $1,000 more per year on average than those who had enrolled in elite colleges. Since the students were smart enough to have been admitted to top-tier schools, their choice of school had no effect on their income 20 years later. This conclusion implies that a degree from Dartmouth has no inherent value.
Before debating the money issue, we discussed our ideas of what our Dartmouth education is worth to us. Most of us talked about Dartmouth’s sense of community, location, study-abroad programs and professors. One floormate broached a more controversial topic, however. She expects her Dartmouth education to open doors that may have been closed to her had she attended the state school that offered her a significant scholarship. I agree with her point that no matter one’s socioeconomic class, a steep Ivy League tuition stipulates some sort of financial reward in one’s future career.
To counter this point, an upperclassman spoke up about her experience working in the real world. She argued that while money is a legitimate personal motivator, her career must be first and foremost meaningful and helpful to others in need. She urged us to think about whether we really need the income many of us hope for, making the point that she could live on far less than she does now.
While we all agreed that her philosophy was a noble one, I am pretty sure that I was not the only one squirming in my seat a bit, wondering just how much comfort in my future life I actually would give up in order to pursue personal fulfillment.
It is pretty common for Dartmouth students to feel this way. On one hand, the weight of the hefty tuition justifies our ambitions to have lucrative careers, but on the other hand, we have a nagging feeling that making a lot of money is somehow wrong. My UGA shared his view that most of his peers see two possible paths after Dartmouth: the corporate, merit-based but morally bankrupt path to wealth and the thankless but emotionally rewarding path to helping the less fortunate. Of course we all know that our range of options is much wider than that. In fact, attending an Ivy League school actually extends our horizons as far as possible. Sometimes, though, it is hard to brush away the feeling that we have to choose between a high salary and a rewarding livelihood.
Ultimately, what most of us want is a career we love and a comfortable income. We have an advantage in finding great careers over students at schools with fewer resources, and there is no reason not to use that to its full advantage. As long as we create a meaning for our Dartmouth degree beyond a six-digit salary and bring that meaning to everything we do as alumni, it is wrong not to use that degree to be as successful as we can possibly be. I’m not saying that we should go on to establish charity foundations with our multi-billion dollar estates (that’s for Harvard dropouts), but instead that we can each make our own mark on the world without worrying about whether or not our salaries are fair. It’s not the money that matters but what you do with the money. It’s not the Dartmouth diploma that matters but what you do with it.