“Top-Tier University Graduates Only”

Here’s a LinkedIn post from a young woman who doesn’t like the way certain companies are specifying “degree from a top-tier university required” in certain of their job postings. I think she makes some good points.

From the standpoint of the individual company or other organization, absolutely requiring a degree from a “top-tier university” (whatever the individual’s other experience and capabilities) reduces the size of the talent pool and quite likely increases costs without commensurate benefit. From the standpoint of the overall society, this practice wastes human resources and creates damaging inhibitors to social mobility. (And in most cases, “top-tier university” is defined based only on the perception of that university’s “brand”…very few HR organizations or hiring managers conduct serious research on the actual quality of different universities from an educational perspective…and the perceived quality may be years or even decades out of date.)

I think we as a society have delegated far too much influence to the admissions officers of various Ivy League universities, and also to whoever constructs the metrics for the US News & World Report college ratings. When discussing “inequality” and declining social mobility..and less-than-stellar economic growth…the role of credentialism in all these things needs to be seriously considered.

Related: the five-pound butterfly revisited

30 thoughts on ““Top-Tier University Graduates Only””

  1. Someone posting a job, and knowing they will get a flood of resumes, is looking for reasons to exclude resumes and throw away resumes. They need an arbitrary sorting rule which is grossly aligned with their aim of hiring someone competent, and this does the trick.

    When I was a judicial clerk, I had to help pick the next group of three clerks who would succeed me and my peers. There were three positions and literally a couple of hundred applicants, most of whom were well credentialed. We ended up rejecting anyone who was not near the absolute top of their class, just to make the pile manageable. I remember Yale did not provide class rank. This was some kind of principled position on their part. Simple. Yale applicants went in the trash.

    Further, the person doing the hiring is interested in ass-covering more than hiring someone good.

    If there is some eccentric genius who would be perfect for the job, and some guy with good paper credentials who would be adequate, any rational HR person will hire the person with objective indicia of being a “good hire”. Otherwise, if the hire does not work out, it is on you for not picking someone with the appropriate qualifications, and you may suffer career damaging, or career destroying consequences.

    Also, these sorts of arbitrary criteria permit automated sorting of applicants. All colleges outside of an identified set get a two line rejection letter. Or colleges are assigned a point value and if the application does not total a certain number of points, it fails. This is cheap and leads to non-risky — to the people responsible for hiring — and cheap sorting of applicants.

    Unless we permitted aptitude testing again — which no business will use because such tests were found to have disparate racial impact and hence unlawful to use — businesses are forced to use crude proxies, such as educational attainment and pedigree to simplify the process.

    It’s stupid in the larger sense, even if it is rational for the actual persons running the process.

    But the obvious fix, actual aptitude testing for the actual job, is legally blocked.

    The long term solution?

    End the economy that has “jobs” — get rid of the “job”, an industrial era phenomenon, which is loathesome way to organize work, whose time is running out. Faster please …

    Someone should write a book about that … .

  2. I’ve hired a lot of people, directly and through subordinate managers, and am very familiar with the flood-of-resumes problem A good HR person, who understands what the hiring manager wants, can do a first-pass screening but should never be the ultimate decision maker on who to interview, let alone who to hire.

    Writing a good job posting is important. Too many postings are badly written, overly bureaucratic, and focus on secondary rather than primary factors. If you’re hiring a business-to-business salesperson to handle large and complex sales, it is ridiculous to require familiarity with a particular piece of sales management software: this can be easily learned and there are lots of factors which are far more important. But some people do this.

  3. “Writing a good job posting is important.”

    And thinking rigorously about what you are hiring the person for. At a point when I was still considering full-time paid employment as an option, I looked at a posted job, at one of the local universities. They were looking for an admin assistant to a department head. OK, that kind of thing was right up my alley. Then I looked at the offered pay, and the list of expected skills and responsibilities. Basically, they were looking for a multi-skilled administrative genius who would do EVERYTHING but perhaps teach an undergraduate class and make home-made jam for faculty gatherings … all for $8.50 an hour.

    I looked at what they wanted, and what they were going to pay for it, shrugged and moved on to the next. It looked like that job opening had been unfilled for quite a while. Wonder why.

  4. Spent a long lunch with my daughter who graduated from U of Arizona 18 months ago and who is thinking of moving to South Carolina to look for a job. She had a good job in Tucson but Tucson is all college students and faculty plus retirees. Southern California is close to a dead end unless you are a software engineer.

    She has an uncle there and I agreed that this is the time to move and find a place to settle, as much as I would like to have her close.

    We live in interesting times.

  5. Hiring is an investigation, and most managers are uncomfortable with that. Almost all people think they can interview by common sense and gut feel. I felt that way, found out I was wrong, and read some books about interviewing. That helped a lot.

    Regardless of good interview technique, the worst applicants are trying as hard or harder to be hired as the best applicants. I estimate 1 in 5 will be a mistake no matter what. About 2 in 5 will lie on their resume about their experience and duties and/or will remember little about their academic study or past work. Large companies have a difficult time dealing with that.

    The response is to increase the objective procedures used to hire, seemingly without limit. Degrees, system knowledge, narrow and direct experience, are all used to screen out bad applicants in a situation where the company remains ignorant of individual detail even after the interview.

    Managers shift responsibility to Human Resources to avoid failures. HR shifts responsibility to a detailed checklist to avoid blame for failures.

    There is also the pernicious idea of “best hire”. It is a way for HR to justify itself. Among 50 applicants, how can we hire the best one? Attempting to do that leads to sorting, keywords, strict, narrow criteria, and delays. Everyone must be considered, and all but one must be rejected.

    Instead, companies should screen the 50 by very loose criteria, then choose the first applicant who meets the reasonable requirements of the job as interviewing proceeds. This is fair if resumes are chosen at random, and it saves a lot of time. There is no “best hire” in the pile. If the manager knows what the person will do(*), then the first person to solidly meet the criteria will be fine. Good hiring requires an extensive, direct interview and checking of references. There isn’t time to do this to 40 people to find the best one.

    Often, a person who will learn something in the job will be more interested and pleased than an expert who finds little challenge in it.

    (*) I have twice talked myself out of a job by asking what I was supposed to do, or asking how I would in practice accomplish the thing being proposed.

    In one case, the hiring manager wanted me to work with two senior managers in the software company to harmonize their plans. They often came into conflict about what they wanted to do. I asked what my authority would be. I was skeptical that I would have authority to tell them what to do, and what would happen when they were telling me what should be done?

    The hiring manager thought about this for a minute, agreed with me, and decided he didn’t need a person after all for the proposed position. Unfortunately, he didn’t pay me a consulting fee for saving him much grief.

  6. An aspect of the university screening used to reject candidates that I would like to see [noting that I am a grumpy old man] is to see a non-STEM diploma from an Ivy League school be in and of itself be a disqualifying factor. When you consider that they are collectively the equivalent of the French École nationale d’administration that staffs the entire French government and political system, and noting how absolutely buggered our own government and political system already is and how Ivy League training bias’ towards political correctness at the expense of competency; who would want to import them into your business?

    Note that I said non-STEM. Whether the schools like it or not, STEM fields cannot avoid reality and Darwin.

  7. Lexington Green hits on a big part of it.

    They can’t IQ test. The top-tier Uni’s weigh SAT’s, which are an IQ test, heavily. What education they received is a roll of the dice anyway.

    Everyone knows in theory that the 3 smartest students of 2015 might come from Bowling Green, Ole Miss, and UMich. But too many other students who aren’t as good will also come from those places. HPYS, there’s a floor. You interview the last few to try and weed out the complete pricks.

    There used to be a regional reputation that covered you. Had I stayed in VA in 1975, my W&M degree would have been a door-opener, even in the recession. In NH, it was unrecognised. I don’t think that’s true anymore.

  8. Subotai Bahadur…here’s Peter Drucker, from 1969:

    “One thing it (modern society) cannot afford in education is the “elite institution” which has a monopoly on social standing, on prestige, and on the command positions in society and economy. Oxford and Cambridge are important reasons for the English brain drain. A main reason for the technology gap is the Grande Ecole such as the Ecole Polytechnique or the Ecole Normale. These elite institutions may do a magnificent job of education, but only their graduates normally get into the command positions. Only their faculties “matter.” This restricts and impoverishes the whole society…The Harvard Law School might like to be a Grande Ecole and to claim for its graduates a preferential position. But American society has never been willing to accept this claim…”

    “It is almost impossible to explain to a European that the strength of American higher education lies in this absence of schools for leaders and schools for followers. It is almost impossible to explain to a European that the engineer with a degree from North Idaho A. and M. is an engineer and not a draftsman. Yet this is the flexibility Europe needs in order to overcome the brain drain and to close the technology gap.”

  9. The Ecole has exams. Harvard does not. At least in the old sense of the term. I took the SAT in 1955 when there were no scores known and no course to prep. I was admitted to Cal Tech and, by accident to Cal, Berkeley because my high school did not know what USC was. They sent my grades to Cal and I got a letter accepting me and asking me to submit an application.

    Long ago when something meant something.

  10. One thing that could and should be done is to put the “top-tier universities” in their place. Tax their endowments. Harvard has $30 Billion. Ron Unz called it a Hedge Fund that runs a university as a sideline. Make contributions non-deductible. Force them to separate their books for teaching, research, medicine, and athletics. Force them to adopt GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles) for their financial statements. Tax hospital and athletic operations, and contract research for industry.

    Institute price controls unless all Federal and State loan and grant programs are abolished. Allowing the universities to set their own prices while the government subsidizes the students, has been the equivalent of letting them have blank checks. They have abused the privilege, and have priced themselves out of the reach of all but the very wealthiest families.

    It should be possible for children of middle class families to attend even private colleges without borrowing money. When I started Chicago in 1965 we paid $1530/yr. The CPI inflation for that is $11,500. The University actually charges $47,139 more than 4 times that amount. And I am sure that the education is not as good.

    Remove their discretion in admissions by forcing them to a lottery method. A lottery is fair for all races and classes. They could set minimum standards, but not higher than the lowest 15% of their graduating class. I don’t want to see grades or test scores be the sole criterion.

    Don’t allow them to recruit foreign students unless all eligible American kids have places at schools of their choice.

  11. When I started USC ( a private university ) the tuition was $17 a unit, therefore, 16x 17 a semester, or $272 a semester for a full time student. I could earn enough in a summer job to pay the next year’s tuition. The medical school, by the time I started, was $600 per semester to $1200 per year. That was 1962.

  12. “…and quite likely increases costs without commensurate benefit…”

    Quite unlikely.

    Anyone who’s ever seen the quality of students, and teaching, at similar programs at top universities vs. everywhere else will recognize the difference between the two.

    Yes, of course, there will be students that overlap in quality between both examples. But it’s a pretty darn good bet than a Harvard MBA is going to be much better than a University of Phoenix MBA.

    Of course, that Linkedin post is an example of why. The best the author of that post could come up with was “diversity”? Yeah. No.

  13. I suppose that the company defines the “Top Tier” schools. I suspect as so many of you have mentioned that this is simply a means of weeding out 90% of the resumes.

    And while I haven’t ever done any hiring on my own, a good friend of mine – one of the top 1% of programmers, has. He has lamented the flood of resumes that have a “cookie cutter” appearance. Certain buzz words and phrases that others coach must be in there.

    He told me of an experience he had years ago – he was a manager and getting flood all similar resumes.

    None of them on interviews seemed to qualify.

    Turns out the human resources people were weeding out any resume that didn’t have the right catch words and phrases in it.

    He finally told them to send him all the resumes and let him decide.

    I would suspect that there would be many a gold nugget among graduates of the “lower tier” schools.

  14. “When I started USC ( a private university ) the tuition was $17 a unit, therefore, 16x 17 a semester, or $272 a semester for a full time student. I could earn enough in a summer job to pay the next year’s tuition. The medical school, by the time I started, was $600 per semester to $1200 per year. That was 1962.”

    The cost of anything is irrelevant, unless compared to the benefits it provides. What have doctor’s wages done in the meantime since 1962? And what else provides comparable compensation opportunities? Pretty much nothing else, and certainly nothing cheaper.

  15. “I would suspect that there would be many a gold nugget among graduates of the “lower tier” schools.”

    Of course. But how many weeks does it take to schedule a couple of rounds of interviews and visits? What is the cost of hiring the wrong person because of high uncertainty over whether someone is a “gold nugget” or not?

    It’s a lot easier to say: let the schools sort them out for me.

  16. “Let the schools sort them out”

    Barack Obama is a graduate of Harvard Law School. Jimmy Carter is a graduate of the US Naval Academy.

    Their graduation from these institutions probably indicates that they have a certain level of intelligence of the kind measured by SATs and IQ tests (though not on the plane assumed by their more fervent supporters)

    However, it didn’t indicate much about their ability to do their jobs effectively.

  17. When I see Obama’s grades and SAT, I will agree. I’m not sure he earned his way into Harvard Law the way an Asian student would have done.

  18. “But it’s a pretty darn good bet than a Harvard MBA is going to be much better than a University of Phoenix MBA. ”

    The odds aren’t as good as you think


    So Joseph Lampel and I studied the subsequent records of all 19. How did they do? In a word, badly. A majority, 10, seemed clearly to have failed, meaning that the company went bankrupt, they were forced out of the CEO chair, a major merger backfired, and so on. The performance of another 4 we found to be questionable at least. Some of these 14 CEOs built up or turned around businesses, prominently and dramatically, only to see them weaken or collapse just as dramatically.

    Mintzberg is pretty critical of MBA programs in general, but you get the picture. Management may be more of an art than a science, so standardized institutional education may not be the best training, no matter what tier it comes from.

  19. AIG…”the best the author of that post could come up with was ‘diversity’?”

    The kind of diversity that matter most in management is *intellectual* diversity. If you don’t have that, you will likely all have the same blind spots and happily all walk off the cliff together. And if you take a White Harvard graduate, a Black Harvard graduate, and an Asian Harvard graduate, they will quite likely have more in common with each other than any of them will with a Podunk Tech graduate who worked his way through school.

    The actual quote from the post is:

    “Quite frankly, I am mostly concerned for you. You are missing out on diversity, on recruiting a workforce that is representative of your user base. You are missing out on the person who learned valuable skills managing a drugstore while going to school full time or the person who did not do so hot in high school but found his niche planning alumni events for his fraternity.”

  20. A friend of mine used to hire for a Vet School. He rejected any applicant who mis-spelled Veterinary. That wouldn’t work nowadays.

  21. In May 1940, Matisse expressed to Picasso his alarm that the German forces were advancing rapidly and were already at Reims:

    “At Reims?” Matisse exclaimed. “But what about our army and our generals? What are they doing?”

    At which Picasso threw up his hands and replied, “Well, there you have it, my friend. It’s the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.”


    It wasn’t a complement: Picasso was talking about the overly academic, formal, and pre-planned approach taken by the French Army, as opposed to the more “jazz” or “modern art” tactical style adopted by German commanders such as Rommel and Guderian. His point is consistent with just about everything I’ve read about the campaign, both by analysts and by participants.

    One of the dangers of excessive credentialism in America today is the spread of the kind of creativity-smothering formalism Picasso was talking about.

  22. Companies wouldn’t be doing this if it didn’t make sense to them.

    But the reason this makes sense to them is that the cost for them to let universities filter their job applicants is less than the cost for them to filter job applicants themselves.

    Note: “to them.” The cost for society is far higher, but it’s been diffused through subsidies of higher education.

  23. Companies do all sorts of things that make sense to them (whoever “them” is…remember the Agency Problem in all large organizations), but that don’t turn out so well in the end.

    Also: credentialism varies from industry to industry and function to function: if you’re looking for a consultant job at McKinsey, you’ll need a “top tier” MBA a lot more than you will if you’re looking for a sales management job at Union Pacific railroad.

    Additionally: I haven’t studied it systematically, but my perception is that credentialism is *much* worse in the “nonprofit” world than in the for-profit world.

  24. “His point is consistent with just about everything I’ve read about the campaign, both by analysts and by participants.”

    What a great story. That squares with what John Boyd showed in Patterns of Conflict.
    Interesting contrast between their innovative maneuver tactics and their cultural and political barbarism demonstrated a few pages down with the internment and death of Max Jacob and Picasso getting hassled for his paintings.

  25. Credentialism:

    In my small mountain town, we have [kinda-sorta anymore and that coincides with the increasing credentialism] a library. As you may have guessed, I am moderately literate and fond of books. I am also retired, which gives me more than a bit of leeway to use my time.

    In my small town library, you need a degree in library science to volunteer to shelve books. I am a retired Peace Officer, and in passing a published writer in military professional journals for over a decade under my real name. And I can’t shelve freaking books.

    Granting that library science graduates should know the alphabet, which other non-STEM fields cannot guarantee; but really, a degree?.

  26. Andre Beaufre, later a general but pre-WWII a young captain on the French staff, said:

    “I saw very quickly that our seniors were primarily concerned with forms of drafting. Every memorandum had to be perfect, written in a concise, impersonal style, and conforming to a logical and faultless plan–but so abstract that it had to be read several times before one could find out what it was about…”I have the honour to inform you that I have decided…I envisage…I attach some importance to the fact that…” Actually no one decided more than the barest minimum, and what indeed was decided was pretty trivial.”

    As I said in a comment to my post on the 1940 campaign:

    This describes many American bureaucracies today, with “forms of drafting” usually taking the form of the expected PowerPoint style and format. Far too much of our society is dominated by what I call The Word People, whose primary expertise is manipulating language, in constructing verbal formulations along the approved patterns. Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor–an aspiring novelist with no apparent background in foreign policy or military matters–would seem to provide an excellent example of the species.

  27. AVI
    They can’t IQ test. The top-tier Uni’s weigh SAT’s, which are an IQ test, heavily. What education they received is a roll of the dice anyway.

    To a degree the top-tier Unis weigh SATs. The brightest kid in my high school class, a Merit Finalist, went to Yale- and to the Obama White House. He didn’t have great grades or activities- his scores got him in. In the class ahead of me, a girl who was straight A, Merit Finalist and a member of the the chorus and debate team, got turned down at a number of the Seven Sisters. She went to the State U her parents attended, and went on to medical school. Seeing the above admissions decisions lead me to the conclusion years ago that the so-called top-tier schools do a lot of crapshooting in making their admission decisions.

    I am currently reading A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League. It is the story of Cedric Jennings, a poor black boy from Washington DC, whose father was in prison, who got admitted to Brown. He passed the AP Calculus exam in high school. You have to admire someone with that drive to succeed academically at a school whose students are hostile to academic achievement.

    He went to a science summer course at MIT after his junior year in high school. He found out that he was the only one from a poor background. All of the others in this “upward bound” program were from good suburban high schools and the offspring of well educated parents. Ironic that a program that is supposed to help poor minority students ends up helping upper middle class minority students, isn’t it?

    There is an interesting conversation over dinner during Cedric’s freshman orientation at Brown.

    Phillip, the Geneva-bred son of a British mine owner and industrialist, looks up from his plate of pork chops. “I probably got the lowest SAT scores here… I got just over 1200.”
    Around the table they go. Almost all the kids are, in fact, in Phillip’s range, something Cedric- shooting daggers at the mining heir- is sure he must have known. At the high end is an intellectually ostentatious student from Stamford CT, who scored a 1430. At the low end is a lower-middle class Mexican American from Sanger, CA who scored 970.

    These are basically flagship state U board scores, at a supposed top-tier school. This gives even more reason to laugh at the Ivy League’s pretensions.
    The admissions committes are basically throwing darts at the wall. They are definintely not admitting the brightest.

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