Top Universities, Reputation and Employers
Let's think about it
It is a fact that some universities are more popular among employers than others. See this link for a ranking of the top 10 universities in the world according to employers in 2013/2014. There are hardly any surprises in this top 10. As always, the University of Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard are included. The question I ask in this post is: based on what criteria does an employer prefer one university to an other? And how reasonable is it for a company to base its preference on these criteria?
It seems fair to say that universities like Oxford and Cambridge have higher admission standards than pretty much any other university around. Therefore, being admitted to such a university is by itself already an indication that you are ‘better’ (in terms of previous school results etc.) than non-admitted applicants. Hence you could say that it makes sense that employers, knowing about this strict admission procedure, are more inclined to pick someone from these universities than from other universities. After all, the top universities already have done part of the selecting for them.
But the above reasoning is not necessarily valid. Since even though it might be true that the Oxfords and Cambridges of this world pick the students that were among the best before they entered their university, it doesn’t follow from this that these students are still among the best after they have been through university. It might very well be the case that someone who didn’t do his utmost best in his undergraduate studies (and therefore was not admitted to a top university) decides to change his attitude when attending his Masters. After all, he knows that there are people from Oxford and Cambridge around, so he has to step up his game in order to get a decent job. The opposite might be true for a person studying at a top university. He might feel like, now he has been accepted into this prestigious institution, the chance of him finding a good job have increased significantly; even so much that ‘just passing’ his Masters might be sufficient to still obtain a job that suits his criteria. In other words: getting a degree from a top university doesn’t necessarily make you better educated than someone who has got his degree from a ‘not-top’ university.
When we look a little further, we see that social factors play a role too in the hiring process of a company. After all, a company – let’s call it ‘Company A’– wants the best employees. Therefore it might look at the ‘best’ firms in its industry in order to see where they get their employees from. Seeing that they get their employees from the top universities, the company believes that it should do so too; after all: these companies are the best in the industry, hence they should have the best employees, right? And given that these employees come from the top universities, these universities must provide the best employees. Hence Company A hires someone from a top university. Now assume a next company enters the industry. This company will be even more inclined to hire someone of a top university because of the increase in the university’s reputation due to Company A employing its students. This points to the obvious fact that companies do not look solely at the capabilities of its potential employees; the reputation of the university the candidates have studied at is of importance as well.
The above is of course not to say that employing students is all based on the unjustified supposition that top universities provide the best employees. After all, it seems reasonable to suppose that those entering top universities are motivated, disciplined and will enhance their capabilities while attending the top university. Hence it is likely that they will still be ‘best’ after having gone through their top-university education. Given that being a good student implies being a good employee, the latter implies that these students will be good employees. But it should be kept in mind that social factors such as the reputation of a university are self-perpetuating, hence no watertight indicator of the quality of its students.