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More Reasons Why Your Alma Mater Doesn't Matter

Mitchell D. Weiss

Recently, I wrote an article that asked: who cares where you went to college?

It referenced two surveys: one that Gallup and the Lumina Foundation sponsored and the other by the Cooperative Institutional Research Program at UCLA. The Gallup/Lumina survey contrasted the views of 1,102 randomly selected American adults who said that school choice was either very (30%) or somewhat (50%) important for well-paid employment with those of 623 business leaders who said that it was either not at all (14%) or not very (40%) important.

The CIRP study took a different tack. Roughly one-quarter of the college freshmen who were surveyed said that even though they were accepted by their first-choice schools, they chose to attend other colleges and universities instead, mostly (60%) for financial reasons.

As I read through the hundreds of comments that were posted on the different sites that picked up the article, it quickly became clear that I touched a nerve.

Many wrote that school choice did matter, if only for the college graduate’s first—and, possibly—second jobs. Thereafter, most of them believed it all boiled down to the applicant’s inherent capabilities and the skills he or she acquired along the way. There were also those who touted the superior networking attributes of the elite schools as worth the effort and price of admission.

What Ultimately Matters to Employers?

The comment about school choice as a potential influencing factor is fair. No doubt, many employers focus on that for recent graduates who don’t have much else to show on their résumés. So too can an elite school’s superior alumnae network be helpful in finding and landing that first employment opportunity.

Here’s the thing, though.

According to a 2014 Federal Reserve Bank of New York repor t  that draws upon data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Information Network, the rate of underemployment for recent and slightly older college graduates has been steadily worsening since 2001: on average, 56% for 22-year-olds, 40% for 27-year-olds and 33% for graduates who are in their 30s, when measured between 2009 and 2011.

What’s more, according to a study conducted by Accenture (a consulting company), one third of 2013 college grads who were surveyed said they would be willing to accept the first job offer they receive. In another one, conducted by Experience (a career services firm) soon after the economic collapse, 70% of respondents said that they had already left their first job before two years’ time.

Therefore, if employers are looking to take advantage of a buyer’s market for inexperienced talent by aiming for grads from the better schools, only to have them jump ship soon after, I have to once again ask: how much does school choice really matter?

I say that because young adults are often given a pass for their first (and, perhaps, second jobs) because as those of us who’ve hired staff know from experience, finding the right fit is a process. But candidates with half as many jobs or more as the number of years they’ve been working full time will find themselves at the bottom of the list. That’s because it takes time and costs money to recruit, train and help new hires to become productive.

I don’t know of any employer that would be eager to make that kind of investment for the benefit of its new employee’s next boss.

Choosing Another Path

One more point to add: According to that Accenture survey, 48% of recent college graduates said they would have been more successful had they pursued a different major area of study. The FRBNY report echoes that theme by drawing attention to the fact that candidates who’ve acquired analytical skills—such as in engineering, math and computer sciences—as well as those who majored in education and health fared better than others.

Whatever the educational competency, however, college students would be well served to contemplate alternative applications for the knowledge they’ve worked hard to acquire.

For example, I once met an English major who was working at a Wall Street firm. His job was to write prospectuses for the securities his company was peddling to its investors. When I asked how he’d ended up doing that kind of work in that kind of place, he flashed a broad grin and asked, “Have you ever read the stuff finance guys write?”

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