Despite Other Evidence, Hiring Managers Are Biased Toward Graduates From Top Colleges

The skills that make employees good at their jobs have nothing to do with their alma mater, yet many managers are still focused on it.

Despite Other Evidence, Hiring Managers Are Biased Toward Graduates From Top Colleges
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A lot goes into being a strong hire, but a new study by Indeed reveals that many managers put a lot of stock in the name of a candidate’s alma mater. The study showed that 43% of C-suite executives believe that the best performers graduated from highly reputable institutions, and as many as 35% of managers and 34% of senior managers agreed.


Indeed’s researchers surveyed 500 senior-level and executive managers with at least four direct reports who have managed their team for a minimum of one year. Only managers who required a college degree for their teams participated in the survey. It’s important to note that a list of schools was not provided in advance. Survey respondents were asked to self-identify if they went to a top 10- to 20-ranked university or college in the United States.

The analysis was intended to illuminate whether or not graduation from an elite school plays a significant role in hiring. Indeed’s researchers were also looking to see if there was a connection between those degrees and an individual’s performance, because they had a hunch that a brand-name school would give candidates an edge.

The results were complicated.

Overall, “hiring managers often look at the name of the school as a way to benchmark other entry-level candidates who don’t have experience,” Paul Wolfe, senior vice president of human resources at Indeed, tells Fast Company. “But that discounts a lot of talented candidates. Very few people attend the top 10 or 20 schools.” Nearly half (48%) of hiring managers reported believing that the institution an applicant graduated from plays an important role in hiring.


The bias appears to come from managers who were students at elite colleges themselves. Thirty-seven percent of managers who reported their alma mater as a top school prefer to hire candidates from top institutions only, versus just 6% of managers who did not. Dovetailing with those findings are the 41% of managers who didn’t graduate from a top-ranked college who said they weigh experience more heavily than a degree.

This isn’t a total surprise, as science has proven that we tend to favor working in teams with people who share common traits. Recent research from Northwestern University indicates that hiring relies on more than an evaluation of skills. The study, based on interviews with elite recruiting firms that work to fill entry-level positions, found that hiring “is also a process of cultural matching between candidates, evaluators, and firms,” lead author Lauren Rivera wrote. “Employers sought candidates who were not only competent but also culturally similar to themselves in terms of leisure pursuits, experiences, and self-presentation styles,” Rivera explained, adding, “Concerns about shared culture were highly salient to employers and often outweighed concerns about absolute productivity.”

The Indeed survey reveals that the preference for brand-name degrees was highest among the managers who were hiring for entry-level positions. Wolfe says that comes from hiring managers being comfortable with what is familiar to them or similar to their own experiences. “But what really matters to performance is strategic thinking, self-direction, and teamwork,” he says, “Those are not skills learned in the classroom.” When asked to rank what was integral to on-the-job performance, managers listed the soft skills that aren’t taught in university:

  • Working well with others: 75%
  • Strategic thinking: 71%
  • Self-direction: 66%

The irony is that graduates are leaving school without a strong foundation in such skills. A new report from PayScale indicate that hiring managers found soft skills such as communication, leadership, ownership, and teamwork were largely missing in this new crop of workers. PayScale found that a majority of managers (60%) reported a lack of critical thinking and problem solving, while 44% said graduates weren’t able to take ownership of their work, and 36% reported a deficit in teamwork skills.

Wolfe underscores that above all, hiring managers should look for candidates who successfully balanced school with jobs, internship experience, demonstrated technical ability, or volunteerism as translatable skills. “Managers need to focus on how a candidate fits culturally and how their experience can be an asset and provide a new perspective,” he says. “The best teams have true diversity of thought, and organizations need to get comfortable with viewing the college a candidate attended as a secondary or tertiary attribute.”

About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.