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Yale or Podunk–Who Cares?

A recent article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer asks this question. The answer is, it depends on who’s asking the question.

But more important, what really matters is the person who hold that degree from Yale or Podunk. Here’s an excerpt from the article:

University prestige matters more in the Northeast than most parts of the country, and everywhere it matters less today than it did 30 years ago, said Michael McClain, a partner at Battalia Winston International, a New York firm that finds executive hires for companies.

“No one has asked me probably in at least eight years that they’d like to see someone with an MBA from a top 10 MBA school,” said McClain, who has recruited for 22 years.

When Christopher Morgan’s clients tell him to find candidates with a prestigious degree, it “narrows the candidate pool pretty significantly,” he said.

Such a decision is a dangerous mistake, said Morgan, founder of Lantern Partners in Chicago and a senior executive recruiter for 12 years.

Attending an elite school today is now more of a bonus in a job candidate than a requirement, he said.

Still, many people say that pedigree matters, particularly for those entering the legal, accounting and consulting fields. The top schools have star appeal, said Mark Stevens, author of “Your Marketing Sucks,” a Business Week best-seller.

“They say, ‘Hi, I’m Jane and I went to Harvard University.’ Suddenly, she’s Jane Harvard Smith,” Stevens said. “And when you have Bob Podunk Green, I don’t believe anybody is going to say they will interview Jane Harvard Smith and not have a higher expectation of how she is going to perform.”

Going to a top school is like buying into a brand, said Stevens, who acknowledged that he leads a successful life despite having attended “a generic supermarket-brand school.” He wishes he had gone with the elites, he said.

“The one who is going to get in the door first is the one who looks good on paper and Harvard is always going to look better on paper than Podunk.”

But those who do attend the prestigious schools have to live up to expectations, or risk looking like imposters hiding behind a great brand, Stevens said.

So what do I tell my clients? Does Yale matter? What if I go to a lesser-known or “off-brand” college?

I tell them a couple of things.

First, I start with a question: “Define Success.” If success is measured in the brands you buy, then Yale matters. If success is measured in prestige, Yale matters. If success is measured in the eyes of others, then Yale matters.

But if success is measured in how much you learn, the label matters not. If success depends on one’s talents and hard work, then brand matters not. If creativity, expertise, and the ability to follow through do matter, then the name at the top of one’s college diploma does not matter.

I know many of my Ivy League classmates that are struggling financially. I know others who have not figured out how to be happy. I know others who have poor self-images.

At the same time, I know plenty of folks who have graduated from colleges even I have never heard of who are happy, wealthy, and psychologically secure.

What matters most is the make up of the individual. That, in fact, is the genius of the American Dream. Each of us, no matter how many times we may fail, has the opportunity to retool, to rebuild, to achieve whatever goals we may set for ourselves. Conversely, we do not have an aristocracy in this country (we have John Adams and Thomas Jefferson to thank for that), so graduation from a particular institution is no guarantee of privilege or wealth.

So, Yale or Podunk–Who Cares?

Do you?

Mark Montgomery
Montgomery Educational Consulting

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