Does University Pedigree Matter?

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Most prospective graduate students have the same concerns when applying to programs. Will I be able to afford graduate school? What types of jobs can I find post graduation? Will this program ultimately propel my career?

When choosing which graduate programs to apply to, many students focus on university pedigree as a major factor in their decision-making process. Through references stemming from popular culture, as well as societal notions and norms that having a degree from a top university makes you more likely to succeed and get a great job, more and more students are becoming concerned with attending the best, highest ranked schools possible.

The Impact of Rankings on Application Decisions

University and program rankings have a large impact on student perceptions; most notably, the U.S. News & World Report’s annual list of Best Graduate Schools holds a lot of weight in the eyes of prospective graduate students.

According to a 2013 study in the Journal of Economics & Management Strategy, an improvement of one place in the U.S. News Best Colleges rankings leads to a 1 percent increase in the number of applications a university receives. While this statistically represents a small impact, the larger implications on both graduate schools and prospective applicants is significant.

Dr. Don Martin, a former admissions dean at schools including Columbia and Northwestern, says that students are relying too heavily on rankings to make their decision, and not enough on what they are actually looking to get out of the program they choose.

“Sometimes a student chooses a graduate program based solely on the name of the institution,” Dr. Martin said. “The student does not conduct any additional research whatsoever. It is little wonder than individuals who choose their graduate program this way are often unhappily surprised and severely disappointed.”

When Does University Pedigree Matter?

The importance of graduate program rankings and perceived university pedigree is especially evident amongst law schools. The U.S News annual ranking of the nation’s top law schools is considered to be the single most influential factor in prospective students choosing and applying to law schools. However, the data from the report shouldn’t be the deciding factor when students are applying.

Edward Poll, a nationally acclaimed law firm management consultant, believes students who don’t attend the top schools still end up at good law firms. “Law school is important. Which one you go to is important. But other than the top 10, it really doesn’t matter,” Poll said. He also states the importance of getting solid experience, as well as gaining insight from a mentor, in order to land a job.

MBA programs are also heavily influenced by ranking systems. Businessweek is the ranking authority for MBA programs nationwide; a good ranking has the potential to increase the number of applicants to the program, allowing for increased selectivity and yield. From this stems a variety of other desirable benefits, such as the caliber of companies that recruit from the program, as well as the amount of money donated by alumni.

Students are increasingly attracted to MBA programs that can provide strong networking and career opportunities, and therefore place a lot of emphasis on choosing highly ranked programs.

The Bottom Line

Prospective graduate and Ph.D. students are placing too much weight on university pedigree and program rankings, and not enough emphasis on the programs that will provide them with the best career opportunities in their chosen field. Financial considerations should also be top-of-mind for students laden with undergraduate debt.

“The old advice to go to the highest ranked law school is far more questionable now,” says University of Cincinnati law professor Paul Caron. “Students need to factor in the financial side of things. Law school tuition and debt loads, combined with fewer job prospects, make this more important than ever.”

Students should be viewing the graduate school application process from a more holistic approach to choose the program that is right for them personally and financially. While U.S. News & World Report rankings, in addition to other ranking platforms, do hold weight to some employers, critics still believe students should make the decision that is best for them.

Says Greg Brandes, Dean of Faculty at Concord Law School: “You’re relying on the [ratings] authors to weigh the factors that will affect your decision, and their criteria might not be yours.”


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