Who Cares What College You Attended?

You worked hard throughout high school to earn a spot in that top ranked college. Throughout your time there, you continued to work and learn, hoping that it will pay off after graduation. You graduate college and apply for that first full-time job, proud to have the name of that well-known school near the top of your resume, right beside, “Bachelor of Science.” It is a large company, but you are excited that going to that top school gives you an edge over the competition, at least you think that it will. To your surprise, you come across a news article explaining that the company for which you applied a job strips out the school names from all applications, leaving you to compete with others on the basis of your basic background, but even more so your demonstrated competence.

The value and perception of credentials and competence is expanding as we continue to see experiments that highlight a regard for competence as much (or even more than) affiliation with a given higher education brand. Consider this recent news about a Fortune 500’s adjustment to their hiring practices. We are seeing an interesting tension in societies around the world, where more people are realizing that the top talent comes from all over the place, and popularity heuristics for narrowing a large pool of applicants is also causing these companies to miss out on some of the best talent in that pool. They take the Stanford graduate for a marketing job over the genius who went to a state school and could have transformed their business. As business analytics continues to reach and reshape human resource departments around the world, more people are coming to discover this fact. As Willing Hunting said amid an altercation in a pub with a proud Ivy League student,

“See the sad thing about a guy like you, is in about 50 years you’re gonna start doin’ some thinkin’ on your own and you’re gonna come up with the fact that there are two certainties in life. One, don’t do that. And two, you dropped a hundred and fifty grand on a fxxxxx education you coulda’ got for a dollar fifty in late charges at the Public Library.”

The quote isn’t factual, but it has proverbial truth. There is an unquestionable difference between going to a top college and having a library card. Yet, it is true in the sense that a motivated person can obtain a world-class education in alternative ways; whether through self-study or getting the most out of a less prestigious college. This is not to say that Ivy League and other élite schools lack value. Many of them continue to show themselves to be outstanding learning communities, providing students with unprecedented access to some brilliant and world-class thinkers, doers, and difference-makers. They also nurture a community where willing people can build some of the best lifelong networks available. At the same time, “some” is an important word. They don’t contain all or even the majority of the world-class thinkers, doers and difference-makers.

This is why we are seeing news headlines like this: “Professional services firm Deloitte has changed its selection process so recruiters do not know where candidates went to school or university.” As explained in one of my favorite talent management books, The Rare Find, people in all types of organizations who ultimately care about the highest level of performance are seeking new ways to review applicants, no longer leaning on a simple strategy like only hiring people from a certain school or set of schools. That might work relatively well in terms of hiring solid employees, but it is also a bit like only narrowly insisting upon only buying one brand of food or clothing because you know and trust the quality of their product. That meets your needs, but diminishes the possibility of you discovering and experiencing all the other amazing food and clothing in the world.

All this is happening just as we read and learn more about the value of not just nurturing or hiring well-rounded people; but understanding that some of the highest performers are not well-rounded. They are what some refer to as “spikey” or what I call wonderfully lopsided. They play to and build on their strengths instead of spending most of their time trying to round themselves perfectly by fixing all their flaws. Of course, some flaws hinder the ability to flourish and need addressing, but there is also a compelling case for focusing on what you do well. There is a place for the equivalent of the decathlete, but there is also plenty of room for the world-class sprinters, distance runners, or high-jumpers; and this is coming from a person who has a lifelong fascination with what it means to be a renaissance man.

This is not about diminishing one pathway. It is just about recognizing that there is more than one path to high-performance, excellence or competence. I recently learned about a large and well-known company that seeks to only hire from three or four schools that they trust. This probably makes their job easier. These schools have consistently produced good graduates who do well on the job. That is not the problem. The problem is that, in doing this, they might have missed out on a more diverse and even higher performing cohort of new hires who could set them apart from the competition and take their company to the next level. Heuristics are helpful, even necessary, as we only have so much time in the day. I understand the reason of the hiring unit that cuts down the people quickly by only accepting applicants with a certain credential or sifting by looking for people from certain schools. However, there is also value in evaluating our heuristics on occasion to see if there might be better ways to find the best and brightest. This is also a great way to address at least one workforce development problem today, namely wasted gifts, talents and abilities from willing people with uncommon backgrounds.

2 Replies to “Who Cares What College You Attended?”

  1. Maha Bali

    I think you live in my head and it might be time to stop reading ur blog coz this piece is like what i think and talk about (like these days) only much better informed. Then again, i might keep reading coz it helps to know i am not crazy and that someone who knows better thinks along similar lines

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