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The Triumph of Victor Valley Alums

Or why you shouldn't sweat it if you don't get accepted to an Ivy League school.

I feel sorry for you, high school seniors. College acceptance letters are arriving, too many thin, too few thick. The days of reckoning are upon you, the days that make or break you.

Maybe you’re one of the lucky few who get into an elite school, the schools so carefully ranked by US News & World Report, The Princeton Review, and the like. Congratulations. Your life is set. You’ll have a great job, make big money, and find fulfillment in whatever you do. You’ll marry well, drive a nice car, and have two perfect kids.

But what if the college of your choice tells you that you are not its choice? Forget your dreams. From now until the moment of your death, life will be just one unrelieved slog of grinding disappointment.

In some fashion, this surely is what we, your elders, have led you to believe. We start the quest for the right college early these days. That’s why it’s so important to get into the right preschool, so that you can get into the right kindergarten, the right elementary school, and then, of course, the right high school. It’s why we hired all of those tutors, made you join school clubs, demanded you take every AP offering, and ruined your weekends with SAT and ACT prep courses. “Build that resume!” was our mantra, and that’s what you dutifully did. So what if you didn’t really help many poor people on that trip to Peru. The point is, it looks good.

So I’m here to tell you: We’ve been lying. It really doesn’t matter whether you get into an Ivy League school or someplace unknown. I know you’re thinking, if the only one that accepts me is UMass, I’m a loser. Who knows? Maybe young Jack Welch once felt that way, too, but the former GE exec and UMass alum turned out OK – in fact, he’s making ads for the place. Hotshot lawyer Cheryl Cronin, the Boston mover and shaker whom Republican and Democratic pols turn to whenever they’re in trouble, also went to UMass, as did Marian Heard, former CEO of United Way of Massachusetts Bay. Onetime BU czar John Silber went to Trinity University in San Antonio, Red Sox owner John Henry attended Victor Valley College in California, former Hancock CEO David D’Alessandro went to Utica College in New York, former Senate President Robert Travaglini went to Boston State, and Boston Mayor Tom Menino got his associate’s degree from Chamberlayne Junior College. The list of successful men and women who made it despite never attending top-ranked colleges appears endless.

Meanwhile, President Bush attended Yale.

I trust you see my point.

This is more than an exercise in anecdotes, however. It’s pretty widely known that the selectivity of the college one attends doesn’t relate to success in life. A 1999 study for the National Bureau of Economic Research by economists Alan B. Kreuger and Stacy Berg Dale found that “students who attended more selective colleges do not earn more than other students.” Many others have drawn the same conclusion, yet, for some reason, we haven’t managed to communicate it to you. Instead, we’ve let you spend the last year in an existential panic.

For that, I apologize.

Of course, it is true that if one looks at, say, Harvard graduates, in general, they probably have done better than those from lesser-known schools. But that’s not because Harvard is so good. Rather, Harvard attracts students with talent, and, for the most part, people with talent do tend to do better than those without. Yet if talented people don’t go to Harvard, the research shows they still do fine. Indeed, whatever advantages elite schools once did have are rapidly disappearing. There’s no doubt that in times past, a degree from an Ivy League gave a graduate a solid spot in the old-boy network (and even now will earn a job seeker a second look). However, in today’s ever more meritocratic workplace, it’s performance, skills, and creativity – not connections – that ultimately count.

I realize these words offer cold comfort for the trials we’ve put you through. But hey juniors, listen up! Don’t make the same mistake. Your success isn’t a function of which college you attend. Rather, it’s all about what you do when you’re there.

Tom Keane, a Boston-based freelance writer, contributes regularly to the Globe Magazine. E-mail him at tomkeane@tomkeane.com.

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