Credentialism: A Problem that Cuts Both Ways

From the Chronicle of Higher Education via TaxProf Blog

If you want to get a job at the very best law firm, investment bank, or consultancy, here’s what you do:

1. Go to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, or (maybe) Stanford. If you’re a business student, attending the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania will work, too, but don’t show up with a diploma from Dartmouth or MIT. No one cares about those places. ... That’s the upshot of an enlightening/depressing study about the ridiculously narrow-minded people who make hiring decisions at the aforementioned elite companies. ... These firms pour resources into recruiting students from “target schools” (i.e., Harvard, Yale, Princeton) and then more or less ignore everybody else. Here’s a manager from a top investment bank describing what happens to the resume of someone who went to, say, Rutgers: “I’m just being really honest, it pretty much goes into a black hole.”

Being, I suppose, an insider to this process (Princeton - Harvard Business School - McKinsey & Company) I'd like to make a few comments

  • First and foremost, this problem cuts both ways.  I can imagine outsiders are frustrated with the lack of access.  But as an insider I can tell you  (cue Admiral Akbar) It's a Trap!  You go to Princeton, think, wow, I did well at Princeton, it would be a waste not to do something with that.   You are a competitive sole, so getting into a top grad school is an honor to be pursued just like good grades.   So you go to Harvard Business School (it could have been Harvard Law) and do well.  And what is the mark of achievement there? -- getting a job at a top consultancy or top investment bank.  So you take the McKinsey job, have your first kid, and what do you find out?  Wow, I hate this job!  In fact, the only thing I would have hated more is if I had taken that Wall Street job.   Eventually you find happiness running your own company, only to discover your Ivy League degrees are a liability since they intimidate your employees from sharing their ideas and most of the other guys you know successfully running businesses went to Kansas State or Rutgers.
  • My only data point inside this hiring process is from McKinsey about 15-20 years ago, so it may be out of date.    But at that time, the above statement would be BS.  Certainly hiring was heavily tilted to the top Ivies and a few top business schools.  But we had people with undergrad degrees from all over - in fact most of our office in Texas had undergrad degrees from the Texas state schools  (at lot from BYU too -- McKinsey loved the Mormons).  At the time, McKinsey was hiring hundreds of people out of business school around the world each year.  No way this could have come from only a few schools.
  • My hypothesis is that this may be more a regional than an industry bias, limited to Boston/New York/East Coast.  Since many top law firms and consultancies and investment banks are in NYC, they reflect this local bias.  But I would bet these same firms and industries hire differently outside of the East Coast.
  • There is some rationality in this approach - it is not all mindless snobbism.   Take Princeton.  It screens something like 25,000 already exceptional applicants down to just 1500, and then further carefully monitors their performance through intensive contact over a four year period.  This is WAY more work and resources than a private firm could ever apply to the hiring process.  In effect, by limiting their hiring to just a few top schools, they are outsourcing a lot of their performance evaluation work to those schools.
  • me

    The fascinating flipside of this type of discrimination is that, obviously, if you believe that graduates from other schools might be just as valuable, this enables you to tap a ready market ;)

  • http://www.embeddedinsights.com Robert

    I wonder if this hiring practice is a symptom of persistent Group Think.

  • Matt

    "me" explains precisely why prestige is negatively correlated with ROI. :)

  • Trapper_John

    I think there are a couple of interesting phenomena going on here. First, firms are somewhat ill-suited to separate good candidates from bad. Investment banks are full of investment bankers who, although good at banking, may or may not be good at evaluating and selecting candidates (a different skill altogether). As you mention in the post, the admissions office does the majority of the apple-screening for them--a service they pay for with higher starting salaries to people from those schools. Schools then benefit by gaining a reputation for placing students in these positions and can thus charge higher tuition.

    Another thing to consider is that I-banking and consulting are businesses where the companies sell the skills, experiences and educations of their people to clients. Clients are impressed by Ivy League educations, so these firms seek employees with those degrees. Customers buying Kraft mac & cheese off the shelf in Wal Mart don't give a crap where the marketing guy went to school, which is why Kraft hires MBAs from my alama mater, Duke.

  • http://evilredscandi.blogspot.com Evil Red Scandi

    More likely it's typical large-corporation work avoidance and ass-covering. HR people get to be lazy in their evaluations and have some cover if they make a mistake ("It's not my fault his work is crap - I mean, he had a Harvard degree!").

  • GaryP

    Do you really believe that what being accepted into Princeton is any indication of anything other than being a member of the privileged class? Of course, you are going to have to meet certain standards (test scores, GPA, extracurricular activities, etc.) but to meet these standards, if you are of slightly above average intelligence, all that is really required is money. Money to pay for tutors and prep classes, money to pay for after school activities, money to pay for the right prep schools (probably the most important qualification) and the key qualification is the right family connections to get the right people to recommend you. I am sure that the occasional talented outsider is allowed in but I think what the law firms are really saying is that they want to hire the "right sort" of person.
    To ignore the best graduates of good schools (private or state)in favor of an Ivy graduate is a sign of "social" hiring. If I was hiring for competence, I would "black hole" anyone with an Ivy League background. My experience with these guys (and the French equivalent, the Ecole Normale) is that they know nothing and do nothing but expect to succeed simply based on their "elite" status. They make the Ancien Regime aristocracy look almost down to earth by comparison.
    PS. Another reason I would never hire an Ivy League graduate is that virtually the entire upper levels of the Federal govt is populated by these drones. If seeing how great that has worked out isn't enough to make you want to recruit exclusively at Bob Jones University, you aren't paying attention.

  • Dr. T

    "... Take Princeton. It screens something like 25,000 already exceptional applicants down to just 1500, and then further carefully monitors their performance through intensive contact over a four year period."

    Bullshit. The winnowing process for applicants is mostly formula-based. The personal touch only applies to those with special backgrounds. Remember all those admission form questions about what schools your parents and relatives attended, what occupations your parents have, whether any relatives donated big chunks of money to the school? Proper answers to those questions bump applicants the top of the list. Talented persons from simple backgrounds need not apply to Ivy League schools (unless they can fill a preferencial minority or ethnicity slot).

    Now we get to the four-years of Ivy League school attendance where: 1. The standards of learning are no higher than at most state universities, 2. Grade inflation results in most students having GPAs above 3.0, and 3. Personable (or special slot-filling) but untalented persons (such as Barack Obama) can graduate without doing much or learning anything.

    Yup, those Ivy League schools sure do a great job of selecting and graduating only the best. (See GaryP's comments above.)

    A few dozen of my (state) medical school classmates were Ivy League graduates. Almost none of them were among the top students, and some of them were struggling at the bottom.

    Being an Ivy League graduate helps greatly when trying to land a job where the decision-makers are too lazy or too stupid to determine objectively who would be best for the position. "Oh, he's a Harvard grad. We can't go wrong (or be blamed for) hiring him." Those aren't the kinds of places where I'd want to work.

  • Maddog

    The system has the salutary benefit of collecting all the assholes in one location so you know pretty much where the A-list assholes are at all times. Now if we could just create some similar system for the sub A-listers we would be in business. Unfortunately they permeate law and business and don't float to the top like, er, um, cream, that's it, cream.

  • http://herdgadfly.blogspot.com/ gadfly

    Gosh, did I detect an Ivy League grad defending Ivy League elitism? I am reminded that Michelle Obama was a Princeton grad, and some of our local tech schools grind out graduates that I would favor over Michelle My Belle.

  • BierceAmbrose

    Eventually you find happiness running your own company, only to discover your Ivy League degrees are a liability since they intimidate your employees from sharing their ideas ...

    No, they aren't intimidated. Indeed, from working with Ivy grads in my career, it's a strike against because they are, well, so much better at working the system than doing the work. You don't want them around. Cut-throat little apple polishers, they poison the well.

    This is also why other CEOs are more often from Rutgers or Kansas State. In the real world, you gotta do the work. Real problem look messy while you're solving them. Dancing around the crater in your company will keep your pants-crease clean, but won't solve anything. Meanwhile, why should other CEOs being from "lesser" schools be a barrier keeping a Harvard boss isolated from them?

    Please pardon my bile. There's actually a (weak) case for this kind of hiring in the industries you named. The idea that this has to do with anything but curb-appeal is profoundly naive.

  • http://stephenmacklin.com Stephen Macklin

    Don't kid yourselves that this is problem limited to Ivy League business and law school credentials.

    As an involuntarily self employed graphic designer for the last 18 months I can assure that this goes on in my profession as well. I have seen job postings that go so far as to include a list of design schools whose graduates they will consider. I have been told that if you don't have one of those schools on your resume you will be instantly removed from consideration.

    It used to tick me off, but I've come to see that they're doing me a favor since I wouldn't want to work for such closed-minded idiots any way.

  • Sam L.

    I will point out that Enron Kenny Lay graduated from Hickman High School (mascot--Kewpie) in Columbia MO and graduated from the University of MO in Columbia, and fooled a whole lot of folks who thought they were smarter than he was.

  • http://photoncourier.blogspot.com david foster

    Evil Red..."HR people get to be lazy in their evaluations and have some cover if they make a mistake"

    I've never actually seen a corporation in which HR people (as opposed to the manager that the individual is actually going to work for) make the ultimate decision on hiring a professional employee. Are there really such places?

  • commieBob

    "You are a competitive sole, ..."

    I am not, and refuse to be, a fish.
    I am, however, quite pedantic.

  • A Friend

    OK, GaryP, I'll take the bait. You wrote, "Money to pay for tutors and prep classes, money to pay for after school activities, money to pay for the right prep schools (probably the most important qualification) and the key qualification is the right family connections to get the right people to recommend you."

    I went to Princeton. I had no tutors and no prep classes. I did normal high school sports after school that cost nothing. I went to a public high school and had no family connections to recommend me. For what it's worth, most of the other students at Princeton were similar. The student body is overwhelmingly on financial aid. Only a small minority had parents that were alums or went to prep school.

  • http://syldrops.webhop.org/106/ Erin Langley

    An Ivy Montrealer recently informed us of a juicy bit of hypocrisy Canadian and McGill graduate Padraic Scanlan whom in the McGill Daily is now going for his PhD in history at Princeton. ..Princeton for those who dont know has a higher per capita endowment than Yale or Harvard.

  • GB

    This credentialism stuff is so confusing, is every single person tainted with ivy totally awesome or a complete idiot a@@hole?

  • SO

    I currently work at a large I-Bank in NYC (The most hated one), and recently came out of undergrad from a large state school in the Midwest. I can't attest to any bias in hiring. Many of the people who I work with are from "non-target" schools. The process is a bit more complex in some ways, but in other ways can be easier, due to the excuse to network and go outside of the normal process. From my school, there have been an average of 5 or 6 kids a year sent to bulge bracket I-banks for the last decade or so, so definitely, I think the whole bias issue is bullshit...

  • Commentator

    "In fact, the only thing I would have hated more is if I had taken that Wall Street job. Eventually you find happiness running your own company, only to discover your Ivy League degrees are a liability since they intimidate your employees from sharing their ideas and most of the other guys you know successfully running businesses went to Kansas State or Rutgers."

    Good post, but this line is silly. Princeton people are a cut above the rest and I do think it's rational to go to the top 3 if you can. It's a statistical approach.

  • Commentator

    I am informed that most students at Ivy League schools went to public school so the class angle is wrong. These places are meritocracies and I'd wager that the admissions people really are impressed with applicants from poor or middle income families. It's just hateful slander based on some insane urge to feel oppressed so that you can blame "the system" for what you do not have.

  • Commentator

    Last one; success in business depends on creativity, assertiveness, and sometimes sleaziness ... and sometimes outright corruption. A lot of Ivy League students are less than creative, shy, and noble; they are good at those grind jobs like banking, consulting, and law, but less talented in other fields. Anyone really talented will rise whatever their degree. These jobs are really hard (I practiced corporate law on Wall Street); it all looks so wonderful from the couch, but it's the best 8-10 years of your life in a building 80 hours a week, stressed, probably unhealthy generally, and with 1 in 10 chance of being partner or whatever after those 8-10 years. I will say this; they are great people working in those places - that's what bothers me about the hatred of them from the rabble. They are noble, work hard, pay 60+% in taxes when it's all tallied (federal, local, real estate, sales, etc.), and they are hated for "getting a break." Hah!