Does your alma mater matter?

With the U.S. college scandal, many are questioning the need to attend an elite school
By Brian Kreissl
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 03/28/2019

The university where I completed my initial undergraduate education, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, ranked 158th in the world this year, according to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

Considering there are thousands of universities worldwide, that’s a pretty good score, although it isn’t exactly on the level of Oxford, Cambridge or Harvard.

The highest-ranked Canadian institution, the University of Toronto, came in at number 21, according to the rankings, which is fantastic. But how much does your alma mater actually matter?

Only one piece of the puzzle

All else being equal, the university or college you graduated from can make a difference, but that’s only one piece of the puzzle, along with many other factors taken into consideration by a prospective or current employer with regard to selection or promotion.

Factors such as: choice of major, concentration or minor, grades, program of study, work experience, specific skills, competencies, professional qualifications, job title, industry background, specific accomplishments, work projects, additional education, performance, potential, technical, communication and interpersonal skills and attitude often count for more than the university.

While there are some exceptions, such as the field of academia, the prestige of the post-secondary institution you graduated from may matter little.

In fact, if you graduated from a lower-ranked but more relevant and practical program, you could have an edge over those at more prestigious universities.

It also depends what you were able to do with the education you received. Did you have good marks, and did you actually learn anything (either in terms of specific or transferrable skills)? How did your program relate to your choice of career?

I am a firm believer in the concept of value-add, and I believe some of the best academic institutions and programs are the ones that offer transformative learning experiences that really challenge learners and boost their knowledge and skills.

While some would argue it’s purely about the piece of paper and a means to securing a better career, education should also be about learning and growing as an individual and contributor to society.

I also think it’s important to remember that many academic institutions cover the same material and use the same textbooks, and sometimes world-renowned experts at prestigious institutions aren’t always the best teachers.

There’s also the issue of class sizes and the level of personal attention given to students by faculty.

Because of that, education is often what you make of it, and the most prestigious education isn’t always the best.

Academic standards and the U.S. college admissions scandal

According to some studies, the percentage of really successful people who attended Ivy League schools is actually quite low.

Other studies have shown that simply applying to an elite school is a predictor of success. This confirms it is ability, aptitude, confidence and ambition that matter more than the actual degree or school where it was obtained.

That is something participants in the alleged U.S. college admissions scam should have considered. Trying to buy your child’s way into an elite university by securing an unfair advantage through non-existent athletic and extracurricular activities or faked test scores sends the message she isn’t capable of competing on a level playing field.

It also takes away a spot from a more deserving applicant, negatively impacts the brand of the institution, calls into question the abilities of those who graduated from the university and cheapens the process for all concerned.

Cheating and unfair advantages tend to reinforce privilege and hegemony in such cases.

One good thing that came out of the scandal is many people are starting to question the necessity of attending an elite school and all the stress, hard work and financial hardship that entails. More people are beginning to see that the quality of the student matters more than the institution.

Standards at Canadian universities and colleges

I personally don’t believe standards are all that different among Canadian universities. The way our system works, the lowest-ranked university isn’t going to be all that different from the highest in terms of quality.

I am also a firm believer in the community college system. The practicality, shorter duration and lower cost of college make it an attractive option. Because of that, I hold a school like Ryerson University in Toronto in high regard because it combines the practicality of college with the academics of a university.

In most cases, once you’ve been in the workforce for a significant period of time, your academic institution isn’t going to matter that much, and neither are grades all that important. Your choice of major may be a factor in determining if you get an interview, but even an irrelevant major can be overcome with relevant experience and additional coursework.

Brian Kreissl is the Toronto-based product development manage for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada’s HR, OHS, payroll and records retention products and solutions. He can be reached at brian.kreissl@tr.com.

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