Monday, February 26, 2007

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Does your choice of college matter?

Some while ago, an acquaintaince asked me this question. I've thought about it a bit since and wondered whether I should post something about it here. Then I saw this entry in the Carnival of Education #107, and I put it on my topic list. And the next day I heard this item on NPR's Morning Edition, and the coincidence was too great: it was time to write it.

The basic question is whether it's the school or the student — and the student's hard work and study — that really matters. The Campus Grotto list bills itself thus:

Here are the Top 10 Best Colleges to attend. These top 10 schools are based on Academics, Quality of Life and overall campus resources. A degree from one of these schools will surely lead to a successful career.
We'd like to think that's wrong, and clearly it's not true that a degree from, say, Princeton (their top choice) will “surely” lead a bottom-of-the-class screw-up to a successful career (although it does happen). The NPR story focuses on the other side of the question, looking at top students who've chosen smaller, less well known, less prestigious schools.
A number of college presidents and deans agree with [students] Selking and Wetzel. Leon Botstein, president of Bard College, says it doesn't matter where you go to college, only “what you do there.”

“College is a chance to really make something of yourself,” he says. “And you can do that anywhere, at a state university campus, or in a not well-known, small- or medium-size private institution.”

Perhaps Mr Botstein was a disciple of Dr Pangloss. In a “best of all possible worlds”, he'd be right. The world we have under our feet, though, is not an ideal one. Prestigious jobs are, indeed, available to anyone who's qualified... but access to them is much easier if you attended the “right” school.

First, understand that the companies and organizations you might want to work for have limited recruiting resources. I see this clearly, working for the research division of a computer technology company. As much as we want to look everywhere, and as much as we know that we might find a top IT researcher at Northern Illinois University (an example used in the NPR story), we just don't have the people, the time, nor the money to go looking there. We have to concentrate on the schools where we're more likely to find what we're looking for. If a top student from a place like NIU came to us, we'd certainly consider her, the same as anyone else. But the fact is that we get far more job candidates through active recruiting at colleges and universities than from unsolicited résumés.

As important as campus visits are recommendations — and no, I'm not talking about the letters of recommendation that are as much a part of a job application as they are of an application to a university. There are professors we consider to be at the top of their field — of our field — and we have ongoing relationships with them. They send their best students to us, and we ask them who the best students are. Of course, these professors can be anywhere, and if you manage to find one at a small school, so much the better. More of them are at the “top schools”, because similar factors apply to their job choices as apply to our recruiting.

As the NPR story concludes:

Botstein says American colleges and universities are among the best in the world, both the coveted diamonds and the hidden gems. But he argues you may be better off being the top student at Northern Illinois University than at the bottom of your class at Harvard.
That's also true, as far as it goes, but it's unlikely to apply in the real world. A student who would truly be at the bottom of his Harvard class is not likely to be the academic star of a smaller school, at least not if that school has any real standards. And that's the real key here. The most selective schools are selective for a reason. We know that the school has already done a good bit of the selection for us, which is why our odds are better if we recruit there.

Of course, there's another side of it. The top schools tend to be the most expensive ones, which leads to two unfortunate effects:

  1. Excellent students with great potential but little means are often pushed, by financial concerns, to institutions with lesser reputations.
  2. Not-so-excellent students can sometimes “buy” their slots in the top schools.
Point two is less the case than one might think, because the schools do have to protect their reputations. Still, it happens. And whether it be for reasons of money or otherwise, it's clear that not every graduate of a “top” institution is a top choice.

For point one, we make an explicit effort to include in our recruiting well-regarded schools that concentrate on good students that have less money. And our diversity programs, which are very important to us, look at schools with large numbers of students from minority groups, and seek to add them to the pool of job candidates.

Another thing that can add to the chances of being seen by a top company is participation in the important conferences in one's field. It's common for us to seek out students who first come to our attention because their work is presented in peer-reviewed conferences and journals. The Northern Illinois University student who impresses us at PerCom, for instance, has had the door opened, just as well as has the MIT student that was recommended by a professor we know.

Of course, the schools (and conferences and journals) that open door for one field aren't the same as those for another. The list on Campus Grotto is a general one, and it's true that some of the top schools are top schools in general, for many disciplines. But they don't list MIT, for instance, or Carnegie-Mellon University, which are two other big ones for us, more important than several of the others on the list. And the two Ivy League schools there, Princeton and Harvard, would come below Columbia and Cornell here (though Princeton is close, and, of course, one would have no trouble with a computer science degree from Harvard).

I would love it if Mr Botstein were right. He's certainly right in a moral, idealistic sense: school is what you make of it, and what you get out is related to what you put in. But the “opening doors” aspect of a prestigious school can't be ignored, and the message that coming from a selective school with a reputation for being challenging is undeniable: it says that you accepted the challenge and succeeded. Yes, it matters. Consider that when making a choice.

3 comments:

Maggie said...

I don't have the hiring perspective you describe, but it certainly makes sense. You are looking for the top of the field.

I was one of the better students in the department at a small university, and it gave me opportunities. I had a publication with one of the professors, and I was able to do honors research. It seemed like any time there was an interesting opportunity, the faculty would ask me if I wanted to do it, and I always said yes.

I think the screw-ups are going to be screw-ups, no matter where they go (although easier to get into a small university as a screw-up), and the talented hard workers are going to find opportunities wherever they go. I wonder about the middle of the road people, who don't seem to have been addressed in your references. Most people aren't the top of their class or the bottom. (As you point out, it's silly to compare the top of the class at a small university with the bottom of the class at Harvard.) But you figure that if Harvard or MIT has already done the screening work for you, they're probably pretty good, right? And it's more work to check out somebody from a school with a less strict admission policy.

I always thought the reason to go to a school like that was for the company you keep -- for making contacts. Of course it's more fun to be in a challenging academic environment with interesting people, but when it's all over, you also know successful people when you're looking for a job.

Ugh. I hate that sort of game, but I guess it's an important game. (And not one I play, which is why I'm a stay-at-home mom teaching part time!)

Yoshiko said...

Hi, Barry. I thought American companies don't care about which colleges or universities people graduated when they hire them unlike Japanese companies. But it seems not so true.

Well, still, if it's just the matter of coverage capability, the situation is much better than here in Japan. They say things are changing, ( and yes, it's changing), but most of Japanese companies still give a huge weight on the name of colleges or universities when they hire someone.
So for many of students, it's not a starting-point to enter colleges or universities to do something academic there, but becomes a kind of "goal" , ( or "checkpoint" ) to be hired by prominent companies.

Again, I agree this is changing and you can find many Japanese companies who does not care about the name of colleges or universities. But at the same time, it's the fact that there are a lot of companies who really care about it.

scouter573 said...

There are really a couple of dimensions to consider here. I think Barry explores the technical-excellence dimension for an engineering or technical position. In this case, one looks as generally at measurable skills - papers published, problems solved, and the like. A missing dimension - touched on but not acknowledged - is that of contacts.

That middling or bottom student that gets into Harvard or Yale? That's contacts (some money, but mucho contacts). Those five people with distinguished resumes? The tie-breaker is the web of contacts, be it a recommendation or a wealthy patron. In less technical fields, one depends less on technical skills and more on the web of contacts. The way to break out of a middling situation is to get that mentor or co-authorship with the professor.

The two candidates we just had for President are examples. Neither was a particularly stellar student - they made it to where they are by contacts. Sure, there were demonstrated abilities, but the door was opened because of contacts, not stellar scholarship.

I don't think this is all bad. There are many jobs where the answer is not a calculation or the result of an algorithm. There are many jobs where success is achieved because of the contacts or "chips" or "favors" that one can call. This is even true in the technical domain. Anyone who tells you that standards are built on the best available technology simply hasn't attended a standards meeting. Anyone who tells you that decisions are made on facts in the boardroom hasn't noticed the number of golf courses in the world that are busy during "working" hours.

I'm not sure who said it originally, but I know that the smartest person in the room is not always the right person to make the decision. Did they say that about Enron? Or about that hedge fund that collapsed so spectacularly? Sometimes it takes someone with contacts. Sometimes it takes the person with heart, with courage, and with principles. Sometimes the smartest kids skip those classes (to their own loss).

By and large, the best candidates for a technical R&D slot are from the better schools, but it is reassuring to know that the recruiting program reaches outside the homogeneity for a couple of diverse types.