Does it Matter Where You Go to College? Research (and Employers) Say: Maybe Not.
April 14, 2021
Hiring managers and business leaders say that ivy league prestige isn't a be-all-end-all. Here's what matters.
Before I went to college (and even in college), I always thought that institutional prestige was essential for securing a job. That the more expensive or well-known a school, the more likely its graduates will be to secure employment. I saw getting into an Ivy League school as the ultimate accomplishment, one that would set you up for life.
After college graduation, I realized that, for the most part, it doesn't matter where you complete your undergraduate degree. My friends went to all kinds of schools, and all gained employment in some capacity. Their personalities and skills were appealing to employers.
Of course, some of them had degrees from prestigious colleges and universities, which may have helped them stand out in a sea of applicants. However, that alone didn't get them their jobs.
Once I became a high school teacher, it clicked that postgraduates have so much more to offer in their professional candidacy than the reputation of their alma maters.
Some of my colleagues went to small liberal arts schools, while others went to large state schools. I interact with the teachers in my building every day. I can't tell who went to a more expensive or prestigious school—unless it's everyone's favorite, "college t-shirt day."
What I can see is who cares for their students, who put time and effort into perfecting their craft, and who enjoys their work. It's skills, experience, and education that employers are looking for.
What research says
In 2014, the Gallup-Purdue Index interviewed more than 30,000 college graduates to chronicle the long term success of graduates, regardless of where they attended college. A significant finding revealed that "where graduates went to college—public or private, small or large, very selective or not selective—hardly matters at all to their current well-being, and their work lives in comparison to their experiences in college." Instead, the report found that the experiences students have in college are what make them better employees and people.
A primary focus of the study was employee engagement, or the desire to go the extra yard out of a commitment to your company's success. This factor plays a significant role in job retention, which matters in the long run.
Research shows that engaged employees have 51 percent higher rates of productivity and that highly engaged employees take a lower number of absenteeism days due to illness.
Studies have also established a strong association between low engagement and turnover. While having one short stint on a resume is not a cause for concern, a number of them may prompt hiring managers to push your application to the "no pile."
When studying engagement, Gallup-Purdue indicated that 40 percent of graduates from private, not-for-profit institutions are likely to be engaged at work, while graduates of public institutions are 38 percent likely.
While there is little distinction between these two groups, the study found that only 29 percent of graduates of for-profit institutions are likely to be engaged at work.
What employers say
In another Gallup survey, over 600 business leaders note that knowledge and skills are more critical than the college or university name associated with a prospective employee's undergraduate degree. The survey also found that the general public puts a higher degree of importance on college reputation than the average hiring manager.
The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) interviewed employers to gage which qualities (beyond GPA) they seek most on students' resumes.
_Instead of the name or prestige of their college, the top ten key attributes are:_
- Problem-solving skills
- Ability to work on a team
- Communication skills
- Strong work ethic
- Attention to detail
- Technical skills
- Interpersonal skills
- Computer skills
How your college matters: Accreditation
While the name of your school isn't likely to land you a job, you'll want to be sure that your degree is from an accredited institution. Employers want to feel confident, knowing you've received a quality education and will bring the skills you developed as an undergraduate student to the table if offered a position.
Some unaccredited institutions are pretty good at conning students into thinking they're passed this validation process as a professional institution.
Red flags that a college or university isn't legit:
- GPA guarantees
- Excessively high price tags
- Promises of earning your degree suspiciously quickly
- Pictures or claims of a campus that doesn't exist
If you're concerned about a school you're attending or merely thinking of applying to, visit the Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs. The platform provides a full list of recognized agencies, which you can use as you plan your search.
So, are you ready for the interview?
With research in hand, school reputation may not hold as much weight as you may have thought. Whether you went to a small private college or sprawling state university, what matters most to your job search after graduation is that you have the necessary skills.
Of course, there can be anomaly situations, like a hiring manager who has her heart set on hiring someone from her alma mater, or another who feels their company would benefit from hiring Oberlin College grads. But do you really want to work for someone that narrow-minded anyway? If a hiring manager insists on recruiting candidates from only a handful of schools, consider that a bullet dodged.
When you're applying and interviewing for jobs, all you can do is prepare and be yourself.
It likely wouldn't matter whether you paid $100,000 to attend college 50,000 miles from home or commuted to a local college while living with your parents. Who knows if where you attended college will come up during your interview? What will, though, is your skills and experience.
Alicia Betz is a writer and high school English teacher. She earned her bachelor’s in education from Pennsylvania State University and her master’s in education—as well as a certificate in online teaching and learning—from Michigan State University.
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