Now we know it wasn’t your SAT scores that kept you out of the Ivy League. Whew, that’s comforting!
Seriously, much of the reaction to the recent, rather unfunny college cheating scandal misses a key point: People have not moved beyond the impact of “brand” in determining where they want to go to school and whether that institution is the best choice for their lives and careers.
How else do we explain this obsession with “good schools?” For the last 30 years, my colleagues and I have trained managers to establish hiring criteria that are aligned with the competencies of high performing incumbents and to be open to candidates from diverse backgrounds. That is not to say that educational success is unimportant but rather that academic and job preparedness comes in many flavors.
Well, apparently, not everyone is getting the memo. Prestige schools continue to be a calling card for candidates and for companies who don’t think critically about qualifications and credentials.
In interview training, I often tell the true story of attending a “ranking and rating” session with one of our country’s largest and most innovative technology companies. When I asked senior managers about what they were looking for in a software engineer, they mentioned high GPA and attendance at one of the fine West Coast colleges like Cal Poly or Stanford.
However, when they landed on the top ranked engineer, I noticed that he came from a small school with a good-but-not-great GPA. I followed up with those same managers and they defended the ranking by saying the engineer’s programming skills and extraordinary ability to work across multiple technical environments with different functional audiences catapulted him to the top of the list. In other words, there was something else going on that made this engineer special.
So, the lesson is not that attendance at a “brand” university lacks value, but it shouldn’t be the sole criteria for recruitment and selection. Sure, it’s easier to sort resumes by GPA and school tier than search for other relevant criteria. But effectiveness and impact are as important as efficiency. The good news is that even the introduction of AI into the recruiting space – an initial worry card – has prompted organizations to think more expansively about the algorithms they use to source candidates.
How do we get the message out so we can avoid this lemming like pursuit of big-name universities at the expense of all reasonableness? One solution is more reporting about how successful professionals come from a variety of backgrounds. After the scandal broke several networks went out of the way to note that more CEOs’ graduated from the University of Wisconsin than Harvard. And, during that same week CBS’ 60 Minutes aired an episode featuring the CEO of “Girls Who Code,” an organization that demonstrates that STEM kids cross gender, race and educational boundaries.
Another solution is to continue supporting diversity and inclusion in the hiring process. There is still work to be done to communicate the value of candidates who bring different skills, perspectives and backgrounds to a role, project or function. Maybe the employee or student from a prestige school is a good choice but perhaps the person with a less conventional or disadvantaged background might be the candidate who “disrupts” the status quo and ushers in breakthrough results.
A final thought. Prestige schools are the “bling” of the moment when parents with good salaries and good intentions lose their way supporting their children’s aspirations. The sooner more people move beyond the glitter and see opportunity and value in schools and experiences outside the mainstream, the better for everyone.