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Does an Ivy League Degree Really Help Secure a Job?

Applying for jobs can itself be a full-time job.

Key points

  • Newcomers to the U.S. often struggle in the job market due to a lack of cultural familiarity and soft skills.
  • Hiring managers' biases can lead to misjudgments of zero-generation applicants.
  • An Ivy League education, like Harvard's, doesn't guarantee job market success.
  • While Ivy League education can be an asset in the job market, its advantages are not guaranteed.

I once engaged in a conversation with Dr. Karen Brown, the director of the Interdisciplinary Center for the Study of Global Change (ICGC) at the University of Minnesota. In her role, Dr. Brown oversees various international and interdisciplinary educational and research initiatives. During a classroom seminar that focused on navigating the job market, Dr. Brown shared an insight I found striking: “Applying for a job is a full-time job in itself.”

In my own research and in previous articles, I coined the term "zero-generation students" to characterize newcomers to the United States who are starting from the beginning in learning English and understanding American culture. These students face unique challenges in presenting themselves in the job market.

They often learn, for example, that the job market is not truly a meritocracy. Zero-generation students often possess exceptional intellectual abilities and a strong work ethic. What's more, they often have the technical skills required to perform jobs to the highest standards of excellence. However, they may lack the cultural familiarity and soft skills necessary for effectively engaging with hiring managers.

Assessing human talent is a critical and complex task. Talent acquisition teams and hiring managers often have a preconceived notion of what a suitable candidate, who we'll refer to as "Type X," looks like. However, when other kinds of applicants—including zero-generation applicants—enter the scene, they often present a different profile, which we'll call "Type Y."

Despite the differences, it's crucial to understand that Type Y is often just as qualified and just as intelligent as Type X. A common misjudgment by hiring managers is to view those who resemble Type Y as somehow deficient or inherently lacking, which is usually a flawed perspective. Intelligence can be expressed in diverse ways, much like how we use different languages to articulate our thoughts. It's essential to value all forms of intelligence, whether they manifest as Type X or Type Y.

It's important to recognize that hiring managers and talent acquisition teams are human and as such often make snap judgments. I recently interviewed an individual, whom I'll refer to as Mohammed for confidentiality. Mohammed, a newly arrived immigrant, applied for a job and was initially rejected on the grounds of not meeting the "required qualifications."

However, confident in his qualifications—as he believed met and even exceeded the requirements—Mohammed reached out to the hiring manager directly for a re-evaluation. After a more thorough review, the hiring team acknowledged that he did indeed meet the necessary criteria to apply for the job. This wasn't an isolated incident for Mohammed; it was part of a recurring pattern he faced.

Upon further scrutiny, it appears that when hiring managers and talent acquisition teams encounter a name like Mohammed, which may be perceived as foreign or unfamiliar, they might approach the application with a degree of caution, according to a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research. This initial reaction can influence how they assess the applicant's credentials.

As a result, zero-generation applicants, like Mohammed, often face additional challenges in the job market. They are often subjected to closer scrutiny, partly due to preconceptions associated with their names and backgrounds.

Could an Ivy League Education Help?

The question of whether an Ivy League education, such as one from Harvard University, can facilitate job acquisition for zero-generation students is not straightforward. While interviewing two zero-generation students affiliated with Harvard, I uncovered insights that challenge simple assumptions.

Harvard, as highlighted by Dr. David Labaree in his book A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education, is often seen as the pinnacle of higher education, a model many institutions aspire to emulate. Despite this prestigious association, zero-generation students with Harvard credentials don't necessarily find job searching easier.

One might assume that having Harvard on a resume would significantly boost job prospects, but in reality, it doesn’t guarantee immediate success in the job market. This indicates that factors beyond just educational pedigree play a significant role in the hiring process, especially for zero-generation students.

In my discussions with two zero-generation students at Harvard, their experiences in the job market post-graduation were quite distinct.

One of my interviewees, a graduate of Harvard Medical School, faced considerable challenges in securing employment. Despite her prestigious academic background, she encountered both linguistic and cultural barriers as a zero-generation applicant. It took a substantial amount of time, effort, and energy before she finally received a job offer. However, the position she obtained was short-term, which was somewhat underwhelming considering her Harvard Medical School affiliation.

Conversely, the other interlocutor from Harvard University had a different journey. He received multiple job offers, suggesting that the Harvard brand significantly boosted his employability. He expressed satisfaction with his investment in a Harvard education.

When discussing the value of his degree, he acknowledged its prestige but also highlighted the importance of adeptness in job hunting and seizing the right opportunities. Interestingly, he chose a strategic path by seeking employment within Harvard itself. This approach is common among professionals who leverage their familiarity with the institution and its network to advance their careers.

These contrasting experiences underscore that an Ivy League education can be advantageous, but its impact varies. Individual job-searching strategies, professional networks, and how one navigates cultural nuances play a crucial role in job market success, particularly for zero-generation students. This discussion on the experiences of two zero-generation students at Harvard University highlights the variability in job market outcomes, even for those from a highly prestigious institution.

But Harvard's global renown often casts a long shadow even over other Ivy League schools, leading to an interesting dynamic in terms of institutional prestige and how it's perceived. Dr. Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania (my alma mater), has observed a fascinating social behavior in his work. He noted that when individuals feel their status is ambiguous or less secure, they are more likely to emphasize it. For instance, students from Penn might more frequently mention their Ivy League affiliation compared to their Harvard counterparts. Similarly, smaller airports are more inclined to highlight their international status.

In my interviews with several zero-generation students who graduated from Columbia University, it became apparent that not all of them reaped the anticipated benefits of their Ivy League education. Some ended up working in restaurants or other roles that did not require higher education. For these individuals, their degree from Columbia University did not significantly influence their trajectory in the job market. This further suggests that the advantages typically associated with an Ivy League education are not uniformly experienced by all its recipients, particularly among zero-generation students.

Dr. Jerome Karabel, in his book The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, discusses the unique stature that these three Ivy League universities—Harvard, Yale, and Princeton—hold. I was introduced to this book in a discussion with Harun Küçük, who teaches the history and sociology of science at the University of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Küçük emphasized that privilege is both generated and perpetuated by who is chosen and by whom. For example, the composition of faculty at most Ivy League institutions, predominantly made up of Ivy League alumni, forms an exclusive circle that is challenging for outsiders to enter. This situation often requires that applicants originate from privileged backgrounds. Thus, those who are privileged and "chosen" can perpetuate an echo chamber and create a cycle that is difficult to disrupt.

Thus, securing a job, as Dr. Brown pointed out, can indeed be akin to a full-time job. Some individuals are more adept at this task than others.

And while possessing an Ivy League credential can be advantageous in the job hunt, its impact varies. For the zero-generation students I spoke to, a Harvard affiliation benefitted some but not all, and for most of those with a Columbia background, it did not appear to confer significant advantages. It's when an Ivy League education is combined with effective job-hunting strategies that applicants become highly competitive and succeed in the intense job market. They then can become, in the words of Dr. Karabel, the chosen—not only by admissions committees but also by hiring committees.

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