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Be sure to read my Key Posts on the admissions process. Topics include essay analysis, resumes, recommendations, rankings, and more.

May 27, 2008

School Selection: Prestige

In this post I will consider the most nebulious school selection that can have real lifetime consequences: prestige. Beyond other considerations, such as ranking, location, financing your education, and academic fit, I always think it is worth considering the general prestige value of the degree. For some strategic advice on school selection, please read my earlier post here. To a certain extent, this is always a relative question, but it would be absurd to ignore the fact that a degree from Stanford, Harvard, MIT, Oxford, Cambridge, and other internationally recognized brand names carry value beyond whatever the degree is in. You might not be a snob, but the guy who is considering hiring you when you decide to change careers in ten years might be.

School snobbery is ugly, but often inescapable. It is the underside of meritocracy based on education. You may have obtained an excellent education, have a high GPA, but if you graduated from a school without prestige, your education will not be valued highly. One can make the decision to simply ignore prestige, but doing so may come at a cost. Unlike what you actually learn, the prestige value or lack of it of a degree, will always be with you and cannot be easily undone (except by obtaining a higher prestige degree). For some, prestige will never matter, but for others it will determine what sort of position they can obtain out of school and limit who will even read their resumes.

The value of a prestigious degree for hiring is obvious: It is more likely to get you an interview. The degree may not get you the job. I try to never confuse prestige with actual ability. One of worst managers I ever worked with, a perpetual job changer, was a Stanford GSB alum. There are always people who look good on paper. I know because when I was doing hiring, I invited them for interviews. Did I miss someone who was good as a result? Probably, but the organizations I was working for imposed standards on me and I followed them. That is one impact of prestige.

The networking value of prestigious varies with the culture of the school and the strength of the alumni organization, but generally speaking, the higher the prestige, the stronger the network. After all, people want to continue to associate themselves with institutions that bring them status and often avoid those that don't. It is no surprise that many of the world's most prestigious schools have alum club facilities located in major metropolitan areas, while less prestigious institutions do not.

Prestige can be location specific. There are many schools that have regional prestige by virtue of the fact that they are the best institution in a particular city, region, or even country. If you are residing in an area where the school is perceived as prestigious, you are benefiting from it, but if you are not residing there, the degree may have little or negative prestige value.

Prestige can be industry or even company specific. As with location, if you intend to work in an industry or a company where a particular school has prestige, you obtaining a benefit that may end if your career direction takes a new turn.

Prestige changes: Some schools rise and others fall in prestige. When you look at where to go, especially with newer schools and middle ranked programs, ask yourself whether the school appears to be increasing or decreasing in prestige. Obviously you want to invest in a degree at a school where the prestige is increasing.

Ask yourself: Are there any negative consequences to having a degree from this institution? Just as some schools have a prestige factor, others may carry a negative factor. Be especially careful with distance and online programs. From my perspective, if you do attend a distance or online program, go with a well-established program at a reputable university. I can't comment on the education you might get from a school with very little reputation or history, but if I were being conservative about it, I would avoid such programs.

I would never say that prestige is everything, but most certainly is a real consideration. Prestige is a matter of perception, subject to indvidual or group whim, damaging to egos, and ultimately an important part of any rational school selection process.

MAY 29th Update: I found the following in-house advertisement in the May 29th daily email bulletin from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Higher education leaders are facing increased competition for top students and faculty, as well as research grants and donations. Market research into public awareness and perception has become increasingly important for institutions in developing effective branding and recruiting strategies, and having access to the right research tools is critical. The Chronicle/Gallup Panel is the most effective way to gauge the views of the American public on a wide range of topics.

If America's primary higher education industry publication has partnered with one of America's top polling organizations to provide schools with information on the value of their brand, it is rather obvious that prestige is something to be taken seriously.

Questions? Write comments or contact me directly at adammarkus@gmail.com. Please see my FAQ regarding the types of questions I will respond to.

-Adam Markusアダム マーカス
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