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How Do Employers Determine which College Degrees Rank Higher?

Choosing where to attend college is probably the most difficult decision that teenagers and young adults will face. After all, there are hundreds of institutions in the United States that offer a bachelor’s degree, and each of them has its own unique charm and attraction. However, students should consider how their future employers will view the college degree. Will a degree from a state school hold the same value as an Ivy League school? Are liberal arts students given the same opportunities as students who go to more technical institutions? These are valid questions and ones that you will need to answer before deciding which schools to apply to and ultimately attend. In this article, our editors will tackle these questions and more to help you weigh your options when it comes to choosing the best college or university for your future career goals.

Where You Go to College Matters

Taking the step of attending a four-year college is a huge one. Statistics show that college graduates earn significantly more over the course of their careers than those who only finish high school. This is true no matter what school you attend in pursuit of your bachelor’s credential, so long as the school is accredited. It’s clear from the research that any degree is better than no degree at all.

However, this does not mean that every college is the same or that a credential from one will hold as much value in the long run as another. For example, a degree from an elite Ivy League school like Harvard or Yale carries significantly more weight than a state university or community college. Of course, there are many schools that lie somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.

Since not all degrees are exactly equal, where you attend college can influence your future opportunities and success as you embark on your professional pursuits. It could affect whether you’re hired, where you end up working, and how much money you end up making per year. It’s a lot to consider. So why do some degrees have more sway than others?

The Role of Selectivity in College Admissions

The perceived value of one college over another is due in large part to these prestigious schools’ selectivity. Because they are highly selective about who they admit, it is assumed that only the best and the brightest have the opportunity to earn credentials from schools like the Ivies. To illustrate just how selective Ivy League schools are, we’ve listed the admission rates for each of the eight Ivies, according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES):

  • Brown University: 7%
  • Columbia University: 5%
  • Cornell University: 11%
  • Dartmouth College: 8%
  • Harvard University: 5%
  • Princeton University: 6%
  • University of Pennsylvania: 8%
  • Yale University: 6%

Interestingly, Stanford University has an even lower admission rate than any of the Ivy League schools at just 4%. Other highly selective institutions outside of the Ivy League include:

  • California Institute of Technology: 6%
  • University of Chicago: 6%
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology: 7%
  • Pomona College: 7%
  • Duke University: 8%

To grasp just how selective these schools are in comparison with other, more accessible colleges and universities, note that there are more than 380 institutions of higher learning in the United States with admissions rates of over 90%, according to the NCES.

This discrepancy may explain why many hiring managers are blown away when they get an applicant from one of these highly selective universities. Depending on the company they’re working for, they may not see a job candidate with an Ivy League degree come through the door every day. It’s bound to make an impression.

The Opportunity Factor

Name recognition only explains part of the equation, though. We also have to keep in mind that students who attend Ivy League schools and other high-ranking universities have access to greater connections through alumni networks. For example, a student who is studying finance at Harvard will have the opportunity to intern at prestigious investment banks. Aside from doing well at Harvard, they will be offered those internships by Harvard alumni who hold influential positions at many companies.

Internships and other types of hands-on learning experiences do not go unnoticed by hiring managers. Companies like to see applicants with not only a valuable degree but also real-world experience in the field they’re applying to work in. If you can show proven success in the field prior to your first real job in the industry, then you’ve already got one foot in the door. The bigger and more reputable the company you intern with, the better your chances of being hired by one of the leaders in the field. This is why for some students, the real value of an Ivy League education is not in the courses themselves, but in the opportunities that these schools offer their graduates.

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Rankings Do Not Tell the Whole Story

While a school’s reputation and name recognition are certainly important, it is not advisable for students to fixate on university rankings. For example, U.S. News always posts a list of the top 100 to 200 colleges in America. While that is a great list, it is not something students should live or die by.

In many cases, a school’s ranking is based on their performance over the past one or two years. However, a ranking does not fully take into account the prestige held by a particular school. For example, New York University may not be a school that is currently in the top 20 of any ranking list. However, NYU is a world-famous name that is known to people from America to Uganda. Say you went to NYU and people are instantly impressed.

An employer will recognize NYU on your application instantly, but they will not Google the latest college rankings while choosing their next hire. For this reason, students should research the history of every college they have gotten into, and then make an informed decision about where to attend.

Rankings Versus Name Recognition

This brings us to the issue of rankings versus name recognition. Ironically, the schools that impress employers at their mere mention are not always the same ones that rank highest, Consider, for instance, U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of the top 10 national universities. Only five of the eight Ivy League schools appear in this list. Still, the ones that didn’t make the grade so to speak may influence employers more than those that rank higher but have less clout.

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Times Higher Education: Top 50 Universities by Reputation

Employers Care About More Than Just Where You Attended College

There’s a reason you’re required to put the name of the college you attended on your resume and job application. Despite what you may read to the contrary, most employers do care about where you went to school for your degree. Fortunately for many, that’s not all they’re concerned with, though. In fact, some employers say they’re much more interested in how their applicants performed in college rather than where they attended classes. That means, they may skim over the name of the college or university where you received your degree, but take more than a passing glance at your grade point average.

Aside from GPA, employers also look closely at the specific type of degree you’ve earned. That’s why it’s crucial you choose a major aligned with your future career goals. After all, employers want to make sure you’ve received the proper training to successfully perform the job they’re hiring you to do.

Surprisingly, a good number of employers say that their hiring decisions have little to do with an applicant’s college background. Some are more concerned with so-called “soft skills” like the ability to work within a team, communicate effectively, and solve problems efficiently. Research conducted by the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that employers also valued skills like critical thinking and integrity on the job. These aren’t skills that can be demonstrated through an academic transcript.

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Ivy League or Bust?

Despite the above statements being true, it does not mean that a student who does not attend a prestigious school is doomed to a life of underachievement. Some of the most successful people you’ll find in any field likely went to state schools or relatively unknown institutions. Instead, you can bet that what worked in their favor was excelling at that school and finishing in the top 2 or 3 percent of their graduating class.

A student who fails to get into their school(s) of choice should not panic. While their job search has been made more difficult, it is far from impossible. They just have to make sure that their grades, internships, and other activities are so phenomenal that an employer has to take notice.

A student who gets a 3.0 GPA at Harvard will almost definitely enjoy a more successful career than someone who gets a 3.0 GPA at a state school. However, a student with a 3.9 GPA at a state school may have just as much chance of being an outstanding success as an Ivy League graduate.

Consider Schools with Job Placement Services

Stressing over applications to the most selective colleges in the country is one strategy to ensure you impress future employers. There is another way, however. Why not consider a less selective school with great career services and job placement resources? Colleges and universities with the best resources for career-launching may help you land your dream job even without an elite degree. Here is a shortlist of the services you can expect to find when you attend a school with a well-equipped career services department:

  • Career Counseling
  • Job Interview Preparation
  • Resume Writing Assistance
  • Internship Matching Services
  • Job Fairs on Campus

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What Do Employers Think of Online Degrees?

Now that you have a better idea of what employers think of various colleges, you might be wondering how they perceive different types of degrees, namely online degrees. If you had asked this same question a decade or so ago, you might have received a very different answer. Fortunately, times have changed, and online learning has sloughed off its stigma of being an inferior alternative to traditional classroom instruction. Today, a degree earned via distance education carries as much weight as one earned in the classroom, sometimes even more. It’s worth mentioning that many hiring managers see graduates of online degree programs as self-driven, dedicated, and tech-savvy individuals who have the potential to thrive in the workplace.

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The Bottom Line

While getting into an Ivy League school or similar top-ranked university is the goal of many aspiring college students, it’s simply not realistic for every applicant. If you feel that your GPA and/or college entrance exam scores are lacking, you may need to set your sights on a less competitive school. The good news is that there are plenty of reputable and high-quality colleges and universities with less stringent admissions standards compared to the Ivies. With a stellar academic record from one of these respectable institutions, your chances of becoming gainfully employed after graduation will still be promising.

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