As news continues to break about the college admissions scandal, we are seeing just how much wealthy parents are willing to pay to get their kids into prestigious universities. Actress Lori Laughlin and her husband allegedly paid bribes totaling $500,000 to get their two daughters admitted to USC.

These parents likely acted on the belief that a degree from a top-tier university could change the trajectory of their children's lives. Their actions, however, were illegal--and very misguided.

"It's a myth that going to a certain type of school is a 'roadmap to success,'" writes Alexandra Robbins, author of The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids. "But parents desperately want to believe that by controlling the system, they can guarantee success for their children, even if it's a narrow, superficial, winner-take-all definition of that word."

The benefits and limitations of a college degree

Here is what we know, based on years of research into how education is connected with happiness and success: Getting a college degree, for the most part, does help. College graduates tend to have higher rates of employment and higher salaries. They also report being happier and healthier, are less likely to end up in jail, and have longer lifespans.

There are exceptions to the rule, of course, especially in the start-up world. But, generally speaking, having a bachelor's degree opens up opportunities. Even Steve Jobs partnered with U.C. Berkeley-educated Steve Wozniak, and Mark Zuckerberg relies on Harvard alumnus Sheryl Sandberg.

Yet where that bachelor's degree comes from doesn't matter that much. One study tracked college graduates ten years into their professional careers, and found that, for most professions, their alma mater did not affect future earnings. Those who attended top-tier schools had similar salaries as those who attended less prestigious colleges.

Another interesting fact is that the benefits of a university education start to break down once someone goes beyond an undergraduate degree. A UK study, for example, found that with each successively advanced degree (master's, doctorate), the well-being of the graduate decreased.

The costs of pressuring children to achieve

Perhaps even more important, there are real costs for children whose parents push for exceptional academic achievement. Children can easily learn that moral compromises are acceptable to achieve an end. "Nearly 90 percent of college students say they have cheated in school. An estimated 15 to 40 percent of high-school students have abused prescription drugs as study aids," explains Robbins.

Child psychologist and author Madeline Levine has also reported extensively on how the pressures and emotional distance experienced by children from affluent families can cause them to struggle with anxiety, depression, drug addiction, and self-harm.

What actually leads to success and happiness

According to numerous studies, success can be predicted far more accurately by key character traits, among them conscientiousness, grit, and the ability to delay gratification. Psychologist Carol Dweck has found that having a growth mindset, or the belief that one can improve over time, is far more important than IQ in predicting success. "The deciding factor in life is how you handle setbacks and challenges," reports the World Economic Forum. "People with a growth mindset welcome setbacks with open arms."

As for happiness, it is rooted in something even further removed from academia: relationships. "The single biggest predictor of human happiness is the quality of relationships," explains psychologist Arthur Aron, who has studied relationships for several decades.

His colleagues agree. Three happiness experts conducted an extensive research review and concluded that "happy people have better social relationships than their less happy peers."

This is why, perhaps, college admissions consultants prefer to steer students and their families toward the school that is the best fit for them instead of forcing the student to match a school's ideal profile. When a young person is in an environment that is supportive and stimulating, he or she is far more likely to develop strong relationships, which, in turn, lead to greater future happiness.

A now-famous study of 268 male Harvard graduates followed them for eighty years and found that "warm relationships" were the best predictor of happiness throughout their lives. Those with good relationships with their parents even earned higher salaries.

The prestigious degree they received from one of the world's top universities wasn't what changed the trajectory of their lives. It was the strong relationships around them. And that isn't something that any amount of money can buy.

Published on: Mar 13, 2019
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