Does Where You Go to School Matter to Employers?


In my last post I wrote about a teenager who applied to five Ivy League schools and didn’t get in. Tufts University, the teen’s top choice, also rejected her. For all the teenagers out there who believe they must go to an elite school to ensure an excellent future, there is hope. I firmly believe that it’s not the school that you go to or the major you select, but what you do at whatever school you end up attending.

But what about employers? you may be thinking. Some people insist that employers only want grads from the most elite schools. I think that is a canard.

To refute the belief that career success hinges on getting into schools that reject nearly everyone, I’m sharing the comments of a woman named Mary, a foreign affairs specialist from Fairfax, VA, who is also a recruiter for a federal agency. (She can’t divulge her full name or the agency where she works.). She posted this comment on my  college blog last April, but I think it’s worth resurrecting.

I hope everyone reads what Mary has to say below because I find it extremely encouraging for smart students everywhere. – Lynn O.

Perspectives of a Job Recruiter

Campus Scenes

Middle Tennessee State

I am involved in recruiting for a very selective federal agency. Our jobs require very high level skills, including a minimum of a master’s degree. Most people I work with are brilliant. They get their jobs here by passing a rigorous entrance test on knowledge of foreign affairs, foreign language aptitude, writing samples, oral exam (to determine presentation skills), quantitative skills, and a psychological battery.

We purposely recruit from a very wide variety of schools from across the country, to include small exclusive liberal arts schools,  less selective small schools, large state universities, historically black colleges, work colleges, women’s colleges, some Ivy Leagues, some public Ivies, etc.

We have people from famous and not-so-famous colleges. We have smart people from every type of college you can imagine — people from Middle Tennessee State University working alongside people from Harvard. And guess what? They’re all doing the same work with great enthusiasm, smarts, and capability.

Where You Got Your Degree

It matters not at all where they got their degrees but rather what they did with their time in the colleges they did attend. It matters what kind of person they are, how persistent they are, how hard they work, how creative they are, and how they present themselves.

Sometimes recruits from the big state schools have the greatest persistence and deal the best with bureaucratic issues, because to survive and thrive in their schools, they developed that set of skills. Many of the folks from small liberal arts colleges of any level of selectivity are our most creative and insightful employees.


Chico State

Sometimes the poor kid who had to pay his way through Chico State has the most pluck and is the most driven. These types of employees are sometimes the most successful of all, because they are used to working hard from the get-go and did not come by anything in life through their dad’s connections. They have no sense of entitlement, so are willing to get their hands dirty for the mission.

Diversity Valued in the Workplace

We don’t want all of our employees to be from one social background, one socio-economic strata or one racial background. We need and thrive on diversity — it is absolutely essential to our agency’s success and to our country’s success. Most companies recognize this, and thus do not only recruit from name-brand institutions.


University of Maryland

There are so many successful people in my workplace and similar ones who did not go to “name brand U.” In fact, I work with a number of highly successful University of Maryland graduates, some of whom did just what Ms. O’Shaughnessy is claiming here is true — turned down more prestigious private schools to attend UMD’s honors program because the price was right. They said they had small, intimate classes with exceptional peers and fantastic professors.

In my opinion, these parents will be making a very silly mistake to mortgage their future to send their child to a name-brand college for undergraduate studies. If anything, save that for the graduate level, when there are fewer credit hours to carry and at a level where the reputation is more important.

Save Your Money for Grad School

As an undergraduate, students at Cornell are in huge, impersonal lecture classes with a lot of teaching assistants. Why kill yourself to pay for that? Go to the University of Maryland as an undergrad and then focus on the Ivies for grad school, if you still care at that point.

In the meantime, just look around you and count up the number of successful, happy people you know who went to all manner of non-famous colleges or none at all — your friends, family, and neighbors, as well as some famous folks (Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet, Harry S. Truman, Ronald Reagan, the Wright Brothers, Albert Einstein, and Michael Dell to name a few…)

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  1. Where you want to go to college depends on what you want to do. If your goal is a high starting salary along side ivy league types in investment banking/wallstreet jobs – then it makes sense to attend one of those schools. Outside of that, the ivy league doesn’t make sense if you are paying for it. I have an engineering degree (my first career) followed by law school (second career). I worked with ivy league types and non-ivy league types in both of those fields and saw no advantage to those who went to expensive schools. They did suffer from high loans, but they did not rise corporately or in engineering/lawl firms. I suspect the same is true for health care professions. For teaching there is probably an advantage.

    I have to say my worst two law school professors were from Harvard. They were the only professors I had in law school who had never practiced law. One was very immature and spoke a lot about how he couldn’t get himself to sit down and write his required scholarly articles. He just didn’t have any helpful incite or experience for law school students who wanted to be lawyers. The other had the practice of ranking his students against their classmates and predicting who would be “successful”. (I guess Harvard grads like to rank people?), but would never answer a question if he could ever be wrong. He also never practiced law.

    I think sometimes a person who goes for ivy league isn’t comfortable in real world work settings because there is so much more to succeeding in career and industry and for many career paths, there just is no advantage but they feel like they are somehow expected to be really good. It’s also my understanding from a couple of ivy league friends that ivy league students are a bit neurotic and unhappy, I have no idea if this is true or not. I wouldn’t waste money on a prestigious undergrad degree unless I wanted to work on Wall-street or in investment banking.

  2. I just stumbled upon this article and I have my own input on this topic. What is it that you want in life? Love, Money, Happiness? Sure going to a well-known university may guarantee financial success but it doesn’t mean you will be happy. Honestly, it is great that a person went to a fancy and expensive school but most of the time no one gives a damn. Everyone is too busy living their own lives to be so intrigued and impressed by boasts and brags about where someone went to get an education. Sure the name can get your foot in the door but what really pays off is if you are happy and hardworking. Also bringing up someone else’s income is child’s play, quite immature.

    1. “who went to all manner of non-famous colleges or none at all”…..University of Texas isn’t really “Famous”

  3. I am a highly paid successful professional and I attended a lower tier 4 year state University. My colleagues are Ivy league and other top tier graduates. Yes I am an exception, but I have encountered many other exceptions (people) in my career, too many to discount as just “anecdotal” evidence. It does come down to grit, hard work, determination and a good personality. In many cases, I outperform by Ivy counterparts because they just don’t work as strategic or don’t have the breadth of real world experience. It would have been a much easier corporate ladder climb had I that premium piece of paper but its been an interesting ride that I wouldn’t change in retrospect.

  4. Great post! And I do agree with Marie that the federal government in general does not seem to choose from the top schools. I have interviewed kids from universities in Arizona to Iowa to Florida. What the government wants is someone whose talents are needed in this changing world. Right now, most excel in languages and IT. Government contractor, now that is private industry and they seek the best of the best. It does not matter what university the applicant attended, just that the student was the best in their major.

  5. I love reading anecdotal stories about how what college you attend does or does not matter, trying to disregard data in order to just make one feel better. As an economics teacher I want data. I want something that shows me that on average an engineer from Stanford or MIT ends up having the same earning potential as an engineer from CSU Fresno…
    Here what I found:
    Is there another source you can recommend that dispute the stats in this website?
    There are very few situations in which you can have me believe that brand name doesn’t matter to people. Brand name matters in the world of academics and white collar employment.

    1. I noticed the folks at College Transitions have several infographics that point to some of the things you’re looking for. I actually e-mailed them with the same question and they indicated that much of their new data and information is coming out in a new book that’s scheduled to be released later this year.

  6. I would just like to point out Warren Buffet may have finished studying at Nebraska-Lincoln, but he attended Wharton in UPenn for the first two years of university and did his graduate in Columbia

  7. The college you choose may have an impact on initial jobs. but your performance thereafter will have the largest impact on your future. bloom where planted, and you will succeed.
    Self-fulfilling prophecy.

  8. I agree that people can do just as well with a degree from a lower level college, but the ivy name definitely helps you get money after college. I also feel that where you got your degree does matter some. Say you went to college at the top party school in America. Employers may think twice about meeting with you. Employers look at a piece of paper with your education on it before they actually meet you. If they look down and see Cornell, they’re going to go “oo look at that!” And they are going to express curiosity. Having the ivy name may not get you a better job, but it definitely increases your chances.

  9. This article is incomplete in that you used only one source from “industry.” The recruiter works for the federal government, which is notorious for a) low salaries and b) bureaucracy. Not exactly the place where most Ivy grads want to go when there are so many better options available.

    I attended a top Ivy for undergrad a few years ago and didn’t meet a single person who expressed an interest in government or worked for the government after graduation. Primarily because talented, in-demand individuals want to work for an employer that pays well and has other bright, talented people working there. Granted, I am not saying you won’t find these people in government, but they will not be as “talented” as your average McKinsey or Goldman employee.

    The majority of my friends chose one of the following options: a) med school, b) top law school, c) grad school d)top investment bank, or e) top management consulting firm.
    (with the last two career choices being the most prevalent).

    Ibanking/consulting are some of the few fields where 22-year old Ivy grads from any major/field of study can live in bigcities, make over six figures (have to pay down those student loans…), and work with a bunch of bright, hard-working people.

    I work for a top investment bank (goldman/morgan stanley/jp morgan) and nearly 80% of the other young employees (22-25) are from Ivies/Stanford/MIT/Duke. It’s not a coincidence. Look up “target schools” for investment banking ie where banks throw on-campus recruiting events. Name matters.

    I would recommend interviewing a recruiter at a major investment bank, a major consulting firm, and a major F500 company to round out the article.

    1. So are you saying that all of these students that attended ivy league schools have only completed their undergraduate there? Or their MBA?

  10. As a background investigator for the federal government, I see a wide variety of students and employees for the federal government and government contractors. I have gained much insight from colleges and employers.
    An employee in the recruitment office of an Ivy-league college told me not to waste my money there for undergraduate studies. She suggested my sons work very hard in whatever college they chose and apply to the Ivy-League institution for graduate school, where they would be taught by the best professors in smaller classes.

    The federal government in general does not seem to choose from the top schools. I have interviewed kids from universities in Arizona to Iowa to Florida. What the government wants is someone whose talents are needed in this changing world. Right now, most excel in languages and IT.

    Government contractor, now that is private industry and they seek the best of the best. It does not matter what university the applicant attended, just that the student was the best in their major.

    Universities with co-operative education, like Northeastern U (my alma mata) offers students an opportunity to intern for the government and private companies. If the student is outstanding they are usually offered a job before graduation.

    I have tried passing on these insights to my sons. Only one will be starting at a state school then will apply to Northeastern. My oldest went to community college after he was rejected by UCLA, USC and NYU. He worked hard, and found a new passion – teaching (he had wanted to be the next Steven Spielberg). He is now at U of Maryland working toward a masters degree. He will then apply to Johns Hopkins and Stanford for his PhD. Since he saved us so much money, we will be happy to help him out financially when the time comes.

  11. Daughter is getting deeper into this process, though so far she seems pretty level headed about it looking at schools for the academic program she’s interested in, all public, though most are out of state.

    However I do want to comment on one thing that kind of slips in when talking about the “elite” schools. Your author used a comparison of “… can you imagine Middle Tenn State working alongside Harvard” the implication being a small, unknown school. Ok I didn’t attend MTSU and daughter isn’t looking to go there, but I found it interesting that it would be picked to illustrate the difference between an unknown school and an “elite.” The reason why is MTSU is far from the small school the quotation would imply, but is I believe now the largest in Tennessee over UT in Knoxville. That shows that even when we are trying to illustrate the value of the non-elite schools, we still use Harvard as the metric to compare against.

    Oh, and just to mess with any blue fans on the board, daughter does have East Tenn State as an option.

  12. I remember your post that listed the undergraduate institutions for those students that entered Harvard Law School last fall, the list included students from all over. When I see parents putting their current and future finances in jeopardy so that their child can attend a big name school that they cannot afford it is hard not to say something, but the parents have bought into the prestige and passed that value aloing to their child.

    1. HI KD,

      I’m glad you remembered my Harvard Law post. I’m going to mention it in my post for Friday. I’m going to devote one more blog post to the prestige virus.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  13. I have completed my graduate degree (MSW), having attended “nights” at the local university and while I may not command the highest salary of one who receives this degree, I have a flexible schedule, great colleagues, and am happy. My point is none of that though. While going through my working life, NOT ONCE has an employer indicated interest in WHERE I obtained my degree. They HAVE asked questions about the classes I took, or my grades, and mostly about my work and life experience. The only thing I missed in not attending an elite school, as far as I can tell, was the social connections.

    1. So …your income???? Now pull a Harvard student working in the same job….their income????…..I rest my case. The more hoity toity the better the job/ opportunity

  14. Great post, Lynn! I feel like so many sites I frequent push the ivy and ultra-selective schools too much and so many students and parents stress out about school rankings lists. It is so refreshing to read comments from the employer side stressing, “It matters not at all where they got their degrees but rather what they did with their time in the colleges they did attend.”