For those students like me who spent all of their school years waiting for the minute hand on the big round black clock on the wall to click over to the right and make it 3PM and OUT, it’s sometimes odd how school follows you around anyway. The consequences of the choices you make in your educational career, whether good, bad or solidly indifferent, are life-long. For many people, their years spent in school may total more than any single job, hobby, or marriage – it can be the one thing you’ve worked at the most. In that light, you should make the most out of such a substantial investment of your time. Doing your best at school is obviously a wise choice. But what about where you go to school?

I’ve thought about this a lot as both a student and parent of students, certainly with more intensity and worry with the latter. You want the best for your children and wish for them to have the confidence and opportunities that go along with being well-educated. I guess what I have come to understand is “the best” is much more complicated than I realized. The desired outcome, though, is a simple and universal wish: to be able to perform work that you are skilled at and enjoy and then be paid enough for that to support yourself and a family if you wish to have one. In a rough economy and rapidly-changing employment outlook, you need to be smart about educational choices more than ever.

Jacques Steinberg in this New York Times article reviews some of the recent opinions and studies regarding the value of attending an elite college. Do read it, but I will give you the frustrating mini-mini-version: it depends. Sorry. You have to look hard at individual motivation, personality, financial resources, and desired career choice to determine if trying to get into a highly-ranked/Ivy League institution is the right thing to do. Too many fuel the assumption that this is some Holy Grail, and that is not necessarily the case.

Part of the problem is the race to get to the top these days seems to begin at birth. Getting into the “best” private preschool leads to the “best” private elementary/magnet/choice schools, then secondary, blah blah blah. Does that work? It can, yes. But you can also spend an incredible amount of effort and money to hook into this idea of “best” when your child’s real “best” may be to do something other than attend a prestigious school straight out of high school. You just can’t know. Is it worth it to put children into the “be the best, get the best” pressure-cooker for their own good? Again, so much depends on the kid. Some will thrive, some will cave, and some will get the wrong message: that everything is all about prestige and money and connections. And sometimes the wrong message is the right message. Argh.

I think about my own public school education, largely a complete botch because of neglect, including my own incredible laziness. I checked out almost immediately. I didn’t know how to ask for the help I did need, and didn’t understand how important it was to make the best of what you have – these lessons came decades later. A little later on, I won a scholarship to one of the very few good private schools in the area. My dad then decided he didn’t want to drive me that far every day. I barely made it through high school, didn’t bother taking the SAT, didn’t go to college at 18, didn’t really know what had happened to me or what I was going to do with my life.

When I got very, very, very tired of feeling underpaid and dismissed, I went back to school at age 27 at a community college for a year, then transferred to a solid state school, the University of Colorado, obtaining a very nice GPA and degree that I liked, but would never end up using as a career. I didn’t even know then how to take advantage of the opportunities I had at school. Hindsight is cruel.

So…how would my life have been different had I been to elite schools as a child? There’s no way to know with certainty, of course; all I can do is make a reasoned guess based on the experiential smarts I gained over a lifetime rather than the paper smarts I was born with. Having more interesting and challenging work early on with more support would have been a much better foundation to build on. It’s not so much private vs. public– for small children, all they need are wonderful teachers who can engage them and encourage them and have the resources to be able to do so. Find them, wherever they are. But what about my personality? I think I still would have been lazy, so all that could have been kind of a waste, too. And socially at that point we were the “have nots,” so being at a pricey private school might have been awkward and inhibiting. I suspect that was the real reason my dad didn't allow me to go to the private school on scholarship money, although that problem was far more his than mine.

And looking down the road, what if I had attended Haaaavaaad or the like? Would I have been able to make something of it, or bailed at the competitiveness of it all and the daunting financial obligations? I am not sure of this, but I think I would have ended up recoiling from the heavy expectations. The best college for me would have been a more flexible and creative place, interactive and cooperative, where I would have had to pull what was uniquely best from me, rather than competently synthesize information and spit back stuff from a textbook. If this place exists without being covered in annoying hippies or smug hipsters, let me know.

To stop my rambling and summarize now:

-- There is no substitute for a truly excellent teacher. They can be found anywhere, but are rare. Worship them when you find them, because these are the people who will change your life.

-- Don’t bankrupt your future with educational debt you might have to take a lifetime to repay. Unless you have a pretty good idea that your career will be such that you will be able to take on Ivy-cost and not have to live in a shelter after, a less-expensive option might be better for you in the long-run.

-- Your internal drive, dedication, and persistence has more to do with success than any other factor, but…

-- “It’s who you know” and your perceived value having gained entrance to elite programs often provide you with the top jobs. Connections, baby…it’s a very real thing. This is most glaringly true in the legal and entertainment/arts professions. You will be judged on where you went to school forever in law, and who you know is pretty much everything in getting creative work seen and heard or working with creatives.

Being honest about who you are and what you want your life to be down the line is crucial to making the best decision regarding education, but even with that, you don’t really know until you are immersed in that school and when you are working in that career. Talk to others who now are where you’d like to be. How did they get there? What would they have done differently? What was their best decision? Look at both the well-worn paths and those less taken, clean off your mirror, take a deep breath, and go forth. The big black school clock keeps ticking away.