Many college-bound students — and their parents — seek out acceptance at an Ivy league school as the key to their success in life. While it’s true that there are many reasons one might have their heart set on an Ivy League institution, choosing a school based solely on its name, previous alumni, or stature as your family’s alma mater cannot guarantee a success story for every student. In fact, some college admissions experts would argue that getting a great education is far less dependent on where you go to school than many students think. Not all students have to go to Ivy League schools to be a success; it is possible, even likely, to still have a great career even if you went to a small liberal arts school, technical school, or community college. A large part of the college experience is what you make of it, not where you earn your degree.
New York Times columnist and best-selling author Frank Bruni dispelled the myth of the all-powerful elite university in his 2015 book, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania. In it, Bruni uncovers some surprising statistics, supporting his argument that the more frenzied the applications process to Ivy League schools, the less consequential the outcome really is for graduates. Bruni cites a growing interest among employers in a candidate’s experience, rather than their alma mater, noting that the CEOs of the top 10 Fortune 500 companies in America (as of mid-2014) were undergraduates from institutions like the University of Arkansas, the University of Texas, the University of California, Davis, the University of Nebraska at Auburn, Texas A&M, Kettering University(formerly the General Motors Institute), the University of Kansas, and the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Out of a larger poll of American-born chief executives in the top 100 Fortune 500 companies, only 30 graduated from an Ivy League.
Looking for more big alumni from small campuses? Read more about these famous alumni, below:
Student Body: 4,051 undergraduates
You may know Jim Lehrer from his decades-long career on-camera, as a veteran journalist for PBS and host of “The Newshour with Jim Lehrer.” While he may have helped set the bar for modern American journalism on public television, Lehrer didn’t need a degree from an Ivy League school to achieve success in his career. He earned an associate’s degree from Victoria College and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Missouri before covering President Nixon’s impeachment inquiry as his first big story, earning two Emmys, a Chairman Award, and the Fourth Estate Award, and writing 20 novels and three plays.
Student Body: 2,548 undergraduates
Famed lifestyle entrepreneur Martha Stewart intended on being a chemistry major upon graduating high school in New Jersey around 1960. Instead, she opted for a double-major in history and architectural history from Barnard College’s liberal arts program. Stewart modeled for Chanel to help fund her education, started a second career as a stockbroker, and created her own catering company before eventually developing her own media empire. Today, she is best known as a businesswoman, TV personality, and writer, and continues to oversee her own global brand, Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia.
Corning Community College
Student Body: 3,972 undergraduates
Collins, a NASA astronaut and the world’s first female Space Shuttle Commander, received an associate’s degree in mathematics and science from Corning Community College in 1976. She later went on to study at Syracuse, Stanford, and Webster University. Collins was selected by NASA and became an astronaut in 1991, eventually completing four space flights and logging nearly 900 hours in space, as well as maintaining a career in the Air Force until her retirement in 2005. She retired from NASA shortly thereafter in 2006.
The above are just a few of the celebrated alumni of small, well-respected, non-Ivy-League colleges and universities. Read on for more success stories:
DePauw University, Greencastle, IN (Student Body: 2,265 undergraduates)
- Dan Quayle – 44th Vice President of the United States under George H. W. Bush
- Percy Julian – Research chemist, Pioneer in the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs
- Ferid Murad, Nobel Prize recipient
- James Stewart, Pulitzer Prize-winning author
- Angie Hicks, CEO and founder of Angie’s List
Grinnell College, Grinnell, IA (Student Body: 1,705 undergraduates)
- Gary Cooper, Screen actor
- Robert Noyce, Founder of Intel, inventor of the microchip
- Herbie Hancock, Jazz musician
- Tom Cech, 1989 Nobel Prize in Chemistry
- Ed Hirsch, Poet and President of the Guggenheim Foundation
Kenyon College, Gambier, OH (Student Body: 1,711 undergraduates)
- Rutherford B. Hayes, President of the United State
- James Wright, Poet, Winner of Pulitzer Prize
- Paul Newman, Actor, winner of Emmy Award and Academy Award
- E.L. Doctorow, Award-winning novelist
- Allison Janney, Emmy-winning actress (“The West Wing”)
Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, MA (Student Body: 2,215)
- Frances Perkins, First woman to be appointed to a presidential cabinet by FDR
- Virginia Hamilton Adair, Poet
- Ella Grasso, First woman governor elected in her own right; recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom
- Gloria Johnson-Powell, First African-American woman to attain tenure at Harvard Medical School
- Elaine Chao, Former US Secretary of Labor and current US Secretary of Transportation
- Wendy Wasserstein, Playwright, winner of the Tony Award, the Dramatists Guild Award, and the Pulitzer Prize.
Reed College, Portland, OR (Student Body: 1,453)
- Kate Christensen, Novelist, winner of 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction
- Peter Norton, Creator of Norton Utilities
- Larry Sanger, Co-founder of Wikipedia
Williams College, Williamstown, MA (Student Body: 2,171)
- Stephen Sondheim, Composer
- George Steinbrenner, Owner of the New York Yankees
- James Garfield, President of the United States
- A.R. Gurney, Playwright
- Thomas Krens, Former director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation in New York City
- Elia Kazan, Film director