A very interesting and informative thread. Clearly college experiences strike a chord. (Imagine what a thread on HS would be like!) My $.02 on the elite vs. state school discussion (been there, done both):
1. There can be no argument that graduation from an elite university (and I mean elite ONLY in regards to academic requirements and expectations; please don't bash me on values judgments) can be a ticket to career success. This is not simply a matter of "connections" (although these can certainly help); rather, it is a demonstration that one can perform academic tasks (reading, writing, 'rithmatic) at a high level. This is necessary for many careers (e.g. rocket scientist), and matriculation at a highly selective institute of learning increases the likelihood that the applicant will be appropriately prepared. (Note ALL of this is presented as a probability statement). Many have observed that it is often graduate education (or post-graduate) that is the ultimate definer, but there are steps along the way.
2. That said, there is tremendous overlap, so the student from Elite College may not be the better candidate than the one from Moo U. Most often, this is a simple matter of motivation. 2% inspiration, 98% perspiration, as the man said. Further, competition for Elite College starts around 4th grade. For those who are not gifted, who have insufficiently pushy parents, or who find their passion later in life than 12 years of age, Elite College won't be an option. As many posters have shown, this is far from the end of the world, either because they have chosen non-academic paths or risen to the academic challenge. EITHER WAY, nothing is handed to you.
3. Which brings us full circle to my original query, which is where one can best combine a love of the outdoors with academic goals. This is not an either/or proposition, nor should it be. I would suggest that these values have influenced most people who view this forum, at least with respect to where they have chosen to live, seeing as we see very few posts from Kansas. (Please don't bash me about red vs. blue-state politics, I was only referring to the flatlands. Or not.)