When I was younger and thought of the Ivy League, I had visions of grandeur and prosperity. I believed that it was the melting pot for the cream of the crop. Books such as Ugly Americans convinced me that students attending Ivy League schools could get a job anywhere. As far as I was concerned, students that graduated from Ivy League schools were leaps and bounds more prepared for their careers than students who graduated from second-tier schools.
This point was reinforced even further by an interview I had a few months ago with a 29 year old professional who was working for an investment banking firm.
Me: “What college did you go to and is that a college your company recruits students out of?”
I-banker: “I went to Indiana University, but my company only recruits students from the Ivy League. I was just extremely lucky to get into this company because my girlfriend’s dad had a connection to the company.”
Me: “Why wouldn’t your company recruit students outside of the Ivy League? I mean, it seems like you are thriving at this company, so why would that be any different from other students that graduate from Indiana University, or any other school for that matter?”
I-banker: “We are looking for students with analytical skills. Plainly, students that graduate from second-tier schools don’t have the analytical skills to properly do the job at our bank.”
Me: “But what about you?”
I-banker: “I like to think of myself as an outlier. I first got lucky that I had an in through my girlfriend’s dad. I then realized that after working with colleagues from Ivy League schools that I always strived for greatness and should have set my sights higher when selecting a college to attend.”
Me: “But by that same logic, could you also make the point that there are other “outliers” just like you at second-tier universities that could achieve similar successes as you have?”
I-banker: “Personally, there are so few students at second-tier schools with the analytical skills to succeed at a company like ours that it is not worth the opportunity cost to recruit at those schools to find the ‘diamond in the rough’.”
After completing the interview, I wanted to get to the facts about this investment banker’s notion. Is finding students with the proper analytical skills at a non-Ivy League university truly like finding a “diamond in the rough”?
Fortunately, Bloomberg has already done much of this research. Interestingly enough, Ivy League students are not far and away more prepared in terms of analytical thinking. In fact, Ivy League schools rank average or just above average for most categories that Bloomberg studied (i.e. ability to work collaboratively, adaptability, communication skills, creative problem solving, decision making, leadership skills, motivation/drive, quantitative skills, and strategic thinking).
After looking at the research and reviewing the responses from the investment banker I learned that there is clearly a disconnect.
Is it fair to students who are getting systematically denied from job opportunities because they aren’t attending Ivy League universities?
Is it fair to companies who are neglecting potentially great student hires because they possess the assumption that hiring Ivy League students will net them better and more prepared employees?
Are there other factors that might weigh more important to successful employment beyond technical skills? For example, leadership and organizational development professors Peter Lok and John Crawford have found an interesting correlation between the work environment of an employer and the strengths/goals of an employee. Employees have higher commitment (productivity, retention, engagement) when the correlation between these factors is high.
If there was a way for students to know which companies had opportunities that matched their desired career goals and strengths and a way for employers to inform students of their work environment, would there be higher levels of successful employment (i.e. both employers and employees happy with their relationship)?
I am not saying that there is not a benefit to attending an Ivy League school, but being an Ivy League student does not necessarily mean you have elite technical skills. In addition, having technical skills is not the only factor that leads to successful employment. Furthermore, employers that possess these ill-informed assumptions may be hindering their hiring decisions.
There is no pure solution to these questions I propose, but they are important things to consider if successful employment is the desired outcome for both college students and employers.