Harvard, Schmarvard

Harvard, Schmarvard

DAVID ANDREATTA

From Monday's Globe and Mail

Leading Canadian universities have long played the prestige card when marketing themselves to potential students.

But a new survey suggests holding a degree from a top-tier university influences one's future success far less than wide-eyed applicants are led to believe.

More than half of 270 chief financial officers from Canadian companies polled recently said the stature of a job applicant's alma mater was "not at all important" in the hiring process.

The survey, conducted by Accountemps, a staffing service for accounting and finance professionals, revealed that just 15 per cent of CFOs thought the prestige of one's alma mater "very important." Twenty-seven per cent believed it was "somewhat important," while 6 per cent did not know how much weight it should be given.

It's not the first time research has suggested that degrees from prestigious institutions are overrated.

A groundbreaking 1999 study by Princeton University economist Alan Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale at Mathematica Policy Research found students who got into highly selective schools but chose to go elsewhere did just as well financially in their adult lives as their peers who attended top-tier schools.

They named the phenomenon "The Spielberg Effect" after iconic Hollywood director Steven Spielberg, who settled on a public university after being rejected by two top film schools at private universities.

Still, observers of the labour market insist a blue-chip education can open doors.

Alan Kearns, a well-known Canadian career coach and author of Get the Right Job, Right Now!, agrees that competence and work ethic make the most difference in the long run, but believes attending a top-tier institution gives job candidates an edge when entering the work force.

"In the later stage of a career, it is less of an issue, but it opens doors early," Mr. Kearns said.

"When a company is making a decision on a new graduate, part of that decision will be made on where they went to school because they don't have a lot of experience."

Elite universities also tend to have a leg up on lesser-known schools in maintaining alumni databases that can be used by job seekers to target employers with a soft spot for their alma mater.

In some career fields, such as law, it is typical for premier companies to recruit graduates from top-tier schools, said Claude Balthazard, director of HR excellence at the Human Resources Professionals Association of Ontario.

At the same time, he noted, the openings at those firms represent only a fraction of jobs.

The higher salaries often demanded by untested graduates of prestigious schools have also motivated top firms to mine for talent outside their standard candidate pool.

"If you say, 'I will only take people with MBAs from Harvard, Wharton and Michigan,' you're likely to pay a premium for that," Mr. Balthazard said. "Most companies now are asking, 'How do I find the diamond among all those people who could've gone to Harvard, but for whatever reasons didn't.' "

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