The Last Word: The New College Try

By Ronald Alsop

Apr. 1, 2011

As I write this column, I am caught up in the annual March Madness. No, not the nail-biting thrill of college basketball games. I mean the nail-biting anxiety of the college admissions game.

Like most high school seniors right now, my son is closely monitoring his email inbox for admission decisions. By the time you read this, he and most of America’s Class of 2015 will have learned their fates.

Nervous applicants are well-aware that the competition to get into top-rated colleges couldn’t be fiercer. Many schools say they are screening more high-caliber applications than ever before and are feeling a bit overwhelmed by the volume—as many as 30,000 candidates for 1,500 or fewer spots. Stellar SAT scores and near-perfect grades no longer guarantee access to a prestigious university; thousands of students can claim those credentials.

Admission decisions may hinge instead on the cleverness of an application essay, high school leadership experiences or a particularly glowing letter of recommendation. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt if there’s an alum in the family. Brown University even acknowledges the value of legacies on its website: “Brown takes into account the natural affinity for the university that often emerges among family members of our graduates. In particular, we will note when an applicant has a parent who has attended Brown.”

I realized just how cutthroat the admission process had become when my son and I attended a college information session last summer in Massachusetts. It’s all about “the strategic packaging of yourself,” the admissions official said. “This is no time for humility.”

All of which got me thinking: How much does your alma mater really matter to employers—and to your career?

Quite a lot, it seems. Studies by economics professors have shown that prestige pays. Graduates of Ivy League and other elite colleges tend to command premium salaries throughout their careers compared with their counterparts from other schools. What’s more, they form valuable lifelong connections with their classmates and the school’s powerful alumni network.

Alumni relationships and college reputations can strongly influence talent recruitment. I once interviewed a frustrated recruiter at Johnson & Johnson who faithfully interviewed students each year at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Although she usually returned to J&J with few, if any, hires, the company’s senior executives, some of whom were Wharton alumni, insisted she continue to visit the Ivy League school. No matter the waste of time and money. J&J simply couldn’t resist the allure of Wharton’s reputation.

When I was editor of the Wall Street Journal‘s MBA rankings, I was fascinated by the mixed feelings that recruiters harbored toward Harvard Business School. While most Harvard MBAs land in the top echelon of companies with enviable salaries and signing bonuses, many of the recruiters we surveyed complained about their arrogance and excessive expectations. “Eat some humble pie,” one recruiter advised Harvard students, while another called them “poor team players.” But in the end, the Harvard name usually trumps such sour feelings.

Some schools play down the significance of a brand-name diploma. Robert Clagett, dean of admissions at Middlebury College in Vermont, sent emails in March to applicants’ parents, just a few days before announcing the winners and losers in the competition for its 690 coveted freshman-year slots. He wanted to prepare parents for possible bad news by trying to put things in perspective.

“Ours is a culture that attaches enormous significance to where we go to college,” he wrote. “In this country we are blessed with hundreds, even thousands, of first-rate institutions of higher learning which provide wonderful opportunities for our children to expand their intellectual horizons. Sadly, too often there is a perception that only a small fraction of those institutions are ‘good enough,’ as if they alone have some kind of a magic formula about how to educate young adults.” But he concluded on an upbeat note: “The fortunate reality is that almost all students end up attending a college where they are happy and where they thrive.”

I completely agree. My four years at Indiana University were among the very best of my life. I feel confident that my son’s college years will be richly rewarding, too, and that he will end up in a satisfying career—no matter which school he chooses. Still, I can’t help but share his anxiety as he waits to find out which schools chose him.

Workforce Management, April 2011, p. 34Subscribe Now!

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