Why Students from Top Universities might be Worse than ‘Not-top’ Students

One of the top universities

The University of Cambridge: one of the top universities

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?

Admission standards
It seems fair to say that universities like Oxford and Cambridge have higher admission standards than pretty much any other university in the world. Therefore, being admitted to such a university is by itself an indication that you are ‘better’ (in terms of pre-university academic results etc.) than non-admitted applicants.

Hence one could say that it makes sense for employers, knowing about these strict admission procedures, to be more inclined to pick someone from such a university than from any other university. After all, the ‘top’ universities already have done part of the selecting for them.

Harvard students not necessarily better
But the above reasoning is not valid. Since even though it might be true that the Oxfords and Cambridges of this world pick the students that were the best before they entered university, it doesn’t follow that these students are still the best after they have been through university.

It might very well be so 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 effort when attending a Master. 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; so much that ‘just passing’ his Master might be sufficient for him to still obtain a job that suits his criteria.

In other words: getting a degree from a top university doesn’t necessarily make you more educated than someone who has got his degree from a ‘not-top’ university.

Social factors
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 another 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 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.

Top universities still good
The above is 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 students.

Written by Rob Graumans

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