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CAREER TIPS - New Netflix Documentary Shows Why Companies Need to Stop Overvaluing Academic Pedigree

Posted 15th June 2021 • Written by Bruce Anderson on LinkedIn •

The U.S. college admissions scandal that erupted two years ago had reverberations from coast to coast and had its roots in the misguided belief that an elite education is worth any price, financial or ethical.

A new Netflix documentary, “Operation Varsity Blues,” focuses on Rick Singer, the person who made a fortune convincing wealthy parents to get their children into top-tier universities by way of his “side door.” His clients — lawyers, hedge fund managers, TV stars — clung to the notion that academic pedigree is everything.

Some companies do too.

Which is understandable. After all, elite schools pride themselves on “holistic” evaluations of prospective students that include a review of grades, test scores, essays, activities, community service, and reference letters. But college applications reveal more about a student’s experience than their potential, and even the so-called aptitude tests have proven to be of little predictive value. So, the screening that colleges do may actually be of little or no value to employers.

That’s partly why But more and more successful businesses are taking a position that what matters when they’re looking at candidates is potential not pedigree, skills not schools.

If your organization is still using college rankings as a recruiting guide, it may be time to rethink how — and where — you fill your talent pipeline. 

In her best-selling memoir, Becoming, former first lady Michelle Obama recounts her days as a campus recruiter for the Chicago law firm Sidley & Austin. She was adamant that the firm needed to look for more than candidates with perfect grades from perfect schools.

“I objected,” she writes, “anytime a student was automatically dismissed for having a B on a transcript or for having gone to a less prestigious undergraduate program.”

Some companies are even dropping the requirement that candidates need to have earned a bachelor’s degree. And it’s not just because a who’s who of business luminaries — Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison, Rachael Ray, Russell Simmons (the list is nearly endless) — never graduated from college.

No, it’s because companies are not seeing a link between a college education and the skills they’re looking for. EY in the United Kingdom dropped its degree requirement after finding “no evidence to conclude that previous success in higher education correlated with future success in subsequent professional qualifications undertaken. Instead, the research shows there are positive correlations between certain strengths and success in future qualifications.”

An Ivy League education can be a wonderful experience, but it’s not a guarantee of job success

At a conference in Arizona a few years ago, LinkedIn executive chair Jeff Weiner enumerated some of the qualities LinkedIn is looking for in potential hires — passion, fire, work ethic, perseverance, loyalty, and a growth mindset.

“These are qualities that you don’t necessarily pick up from a degree,” Jeff told the audience. “There are qualities . . . that have a tendency to be completely overlooked when people are sifting through resumes or LinkedIn profiles. . . . Increasingly, I hear this mantra: Skills, not degrees. It’s not skills at the exclusion of degrees. It’s just expanding our perspective to go beyond degrees.”

An Ivy League education (Jeff has one) can be a life-shaping experience, but a diploma from an elite school is not a certification of hard skills or soft skills nor a guarantee of success.

De-emphasizing educational pedigree will help companies find skills more quickly and new employees more fairly.

By acknowledging that people with powerful potential come out of high schools and community colleges as well as the Ivies, from military and community service as well as corporate experience, companies will increase the diversity of their workforce, find people with the skills they need, and level the playing field.

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