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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Muller

Understanding Perceived Differences in University Educations

Assuming the reader is pursuing or has earned a university degree, it is essential that you understand how employers think about university educations.

The issue is that most employers have a higher regard for employees with degrees from some universities than others. Not only do employers differentiate some universities as better, but you will find that your peers and direct reports (for those in management) have similar opinions.

Why is this?

First, I think we would all agree that we have individual biases about the university that we individually attended. I thought that my education from a state school in Ohio was outstanding, challenging, academically thorough, and difficult in terms of workload and testing. I am sure that a peer of mine who attended a private Ivy League university had similar thoughts about their own education.

Second, we likely all understand that the very top elite universities are difficult to be accepted into, have extremely high tuition costs, and have track records of producing a high percentage of successful graduates. Even though I had the academic record in high school, and test scores, to be accepted into an Ivy League school, I did not have the financial wherewithal to apply or to pay tuition if I had been accepted.

Third, you should understand that most medium or large companies have hiring plans each year and hiring strategies. Those hiring strategies sometimes include tactics to hire a small percentage (5-10 percent) of new white-collar workers from ‘top-shelf’ universities at perhaps more elevated salaries while hiring most new white-collar workers from other colleges and universities. Just as examples, any Ivy League school (Harvard, Princeton, Yale, etc.) would fall into the ‘top-shelf’ classification, as well as noted universities, such as Stanford or the University of Chicago.

There clearly are also gradations below those top-shelf schools. Clearly, a local religious private college in town might be less highly-regarded as a major state school, such as Ohio State, Nebraska, UCLA, or Duke.

What does this have to do with anything? You should understand that especially for the top-shelf universities, new hires might be privately told by your employer that their careers will be on the ‘fast track’ versus other hires. Why? Some companies have programs that will ensure that these new hires will enjoy more visibility by senior management, have more rapid job advancement, and have special mentors assigned to them to assist them, in their early years, especially.

Why would employers differentiate those candidates from others? From my experience, first, there is a belief held by many executives that the education provided by these top-shelf universities is superior to that offered from other schools. If you follow that logic for a moment, you might then agree that those graduates should be better prepared and, as a result, have a higher probability to succeed and to be promoted to more senior positions. Second, if a group of current executives grew up in white-collar families and mostly attended top-shelf universities, it is possible that they would want to promote candidates with similar backgrounds into other senior positions, because perhaps, they may feel that their educations were superior to those offered at other universities. Like it or not, this is probably human nature.

But, what about performance on the job? Doesn’t that matter? Certainly, it does! These fast-track programs only assist these employees; they do not ensure their success. From my experience, especially in the longer term, if you did not graduate from a top-shelf school, you can certainly overcome any perception you or others may have that you are at a disadvantage.

In my case, as being the first ever in my family to attend college, and not having the financial resources to consider any college option other than one of the lowest cost state universities, I came to understand this ‘bias’ in the workplace over time.

Some companies are not so subtle in how they handle candidates in ‘fast-track’ programs. As an example, in my department where I held my first job, there were three candidates hired at the same time, and we were told that these candidates were in the fast-track program because they had MBAs and came from Harvard, Ohio State, and Purdue respectively. We just accepted that fact and watched them as they progressed through new jobs every three to six months then get promoted out of our department within two years. Were they higher performers than the rest of us, such that they deserved these promotions so rapidly? That is hard to say, since we were not their supervisors, and did not witness the work that they did directly. Maybe they all did an outstanding job. But in reality, they likely would have received these promotions anyway given that the ‘fast track’ that they were assigned to, was likely a hiring promise in order to get them to agree to come to work for our company.

Perhaps it was a little frustrating, but we privately discussed that it was unfortunate for these candidates, in one aspect, because they never had the time in the job to truly learn the guts of the business or function we were employed within.

But I can share with you that many times, that ‘top-tier’ education did not, in the long run, assure that employees would succeed. Certainly, many succeeded and went on to become successful senior leaders. Others, once they had migrated out of their fast-track program, and had to stand on their own performance, stagnated in their careers or failed. Usually, this was because they were overconfident, or never had the chance to really earn the respect of peers, or learn any details or to solve real problems on the job. Some just turned out to be poor leaders or managers.

If you think about that, it makes complete sense. Surely every university, regardless of tuition cost or acceptance criteria, graduates a mix of candidates with a variety of capabilities. Some hve a nice mix of academic skills and people skills, and work very well in the white-collar world. Others are more book-smart and have not developed the people skills necessary to deal with and solve tough workplace problems.

In the middle of my career, I began to realize that what really mattered to employers was your ability to be effective in your role, to solve problems, to communicate, to think, to work well with others, and to lead. There is no education that will guarantee that you will do all of these well. An education provides the opportunity to learn these things but does not ensure your success.

I had the opportunity to attend some ‘ongoing education’ classes mid-career that my employer paid for, and I attended a few of these at an Ivy League school. At these classes, the university seemed to bring forward their very best professors as a way to reinforce just how good these universities really were. I have to admit, the level of thinking and the concepts that they shared were a bit better than what I learned in my MBA program from a state school in Ohio. However, on a scale of one to ten, with ten being ‘fantastic,’ I would rate what I learned from the Ivy League school a ‘nine,’ while my education at my state school was in the range of ‘seven’ or ‘eight.’ So, to me, although you could argue that top-shelf university educations were better than most others, they were not so much better that you would be convinced to pay two to four times more to attend these universities than other options. But that is just my opinion; others, I am sure, would differ on that point!

Later in my career, I also learned that there was a ‘reinforcing’ mechanism built into public company structures that helped to ensure that employees from top-tier schools had perhaps more opportunities for advancement. That mechanism was the composition of the board of directors. Most companies work very hard to find the best board members to sit on their boards, since shareholders want to see high qualifications on the board so that they can best represent the interests of the shareholders. Those qualifications usually are based upon prior executive positions with companies, as well as their educational institutions and degrees. As a shareholder, how would you feel if the company you partly owned (via your stock ownership) named a new board director who had an associate degree from ‘Chicken Run Technical College’, versus a doctorate from Harvard? (I hope Chicken Run Technical College is not a real college, as I made this up!)

What is most important to understand is that these board members are involved in reviewing, and sometimes approving, executive promotions or hires. Certainly, the board has direct responsibility to hire a new CEO if the prior CEO plans to resign. They also have responsibility to monitor the performance of the CEO year to year. But they also gain exposure to the top 10-20 executives over time, because they are responsible to the shareholders to be convinced that the management team in place is properly operating and managing the company and paying attention to shareholder interests. For example, if a few board members have a concern about a certain leader in the top tier of the company, you can bet that there will be serious discussions within a committee about that individual, and it could be that the board will request the CEO to find another leader.

Most (but not all) of these board members have degrees from top-tier universities. Likely, they have personal biases, as discussed above, about the value of a degree from a top-tier university. Does it follow that, if a high-level position must be filled, they will prefer a candidate from a top-tier university? Perhaps. Certainly, a candidate with a degree from a top-tier university will not be at a disadvantage!

The important lesson here is to understand that certain employees from top-shelf schools will be treated differently, but do not get distracted from what is really important.

If you do not have a degree from a top-tier university, in my view, you have two priorities. First, focus upon what is really important: your performance, learning new skills, solving problems, getting results, practicing good teamwork, and exhibiting excellent communications skills. Second, if you do not like that you have the ‘disadvantage’ of not having a degree from a top university, consider working to get an advanced degree from a top school. I witnessed several peers who did this during their careers. They either saved enough to afford graduate school at a top university and requested permission from their employer to take a leave to attend that school, or, sometimes the employer suggested this and offered to help pay for that education.

On the other hand, if it is your perception that this entire topic is not of importance at your company or employer, then you can ignore this entire issue! Sometimes small companies, or private companies, have leaders and board members who do not have this issue on the radar screens at all! If you are not sure, you might want to subtly inquire about this issue with a few in the management ranks to get their opinion. Just be sure to have this discussion with a mix of managers, some from top-tier schools, and others who are not.

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