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Who Cares Where You Went to College?

Some 15 years ago, my wife and I attended a barbecue fundraiser for a local nonprofit. As we made our way through the crowd, I bumped into a friend I hadn’t seen in a while.

Jack (not his real name) was the CFO of a good-sized public company. After catching up on work, family and mutual friends, we moved on to a topic that was at the top of the list for parents of college-aged children: the schools our kids were considering.

Soon, what had until that point been a pleasant conversation, suddenly became much less so.

Jack has a very hard-core view on the matter: unless his kids got into top-notch schools, their professional and economic futures weren’t likely to amount to much. To drive that point home, he summed up his own résumé evaluation process this way.

“I look at the school first and toss anything less than second-tier.”

I could feel the back of my neck heating up.

“If that’s the case,” I said, “then what about first-generation students like me?” (My dad made it through 6 th grade and my mom, a few years more.) “What about those of us who worked our way through night school at a local college? We wouldn’t stand a chance!”

Sadly, a majority of American adults share my friend’s view.

According to a recent survey that was conducted by Gallup and the Lumina Foundation, when it comes to finding well-paying employment, 80% of Americans said that school choice is either very (30%) or somewhat (50%) important.

Fortunately, however, those who sign payroll checks don’t share that opinion.

Of the 623 business leaders who were also surveyed, only 9% responded that where a job candidate earns his or her degree is very important, and 37% believe it is somewhat so.

That’s good news for students and their families.

Those who need a longer or less costly runway for their academic pursuits shouldn’t fret about the consequences of their personal circumstances. Even when school choice matters, where you start isn’t nearly as important as where you finish—as long as you do.

Students and their families should also view these findings as yet another reason to “shop the competition,” which, according to the Cooperative Institutional Research Institute’s annual Freshman Survey, is precisely what’s taking place as roughly one-quarter of students who were accepted by their first-choice colleges and universities had elected to attend other schools. Nearly 60% cited financial considerations—tuition costs, insufficient financial aid and so forth—even though roughly the same percentage said that school choice remained a “very important” consideration.

When it came time to send our own kids to college, my wife and I focused on several factors including curricula diversity (because our kids didn’t have a clue about what they wanted to be), proximity (because travel expenses have to be taken into account), “fit” (because it was their life—not ours), and, of course, cost (because our family’s resources weren’t unlimited).

Money and school choice aside, however, which should matter more: the knowledge a job candidate may have acquired during the course of an academic career or how he or she uses it? It’s heartening to know that a majority of those 623 business surveyed leaders think the latter.


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