Outsourcing Hiring Decisions to Colleges

A while back I wrote this as part of a response saying that the only way to get into a top consultancy was to got to Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Stanford.  Having joined a top consulting firm from Princeton and Harvard, I thought some of their observations to be BS, but there is a certain core of truth.  As I wrote then:

There is some rationality in this approach – it is not all mindless snobbism.   Take Princeton.  It screens something like 25,000 already exceptional applicants down to just 1500, and then further carefully monitors their performance through intensive contact over a four year period.  This is WAY more work and resources than a private firm could ever apply to the hiring process.  In effect, by limiting their hiring to just a few top schools, they are outsourcing a lot of their performance evaluation work to those schools.

Matthew Shaffer, via Glen Reynolds, write something similar about all college degrees:

Those of us who question the price and value of higher education don’t disagree that people with B.A.s do much better in life, especially in employment. We disagree about the source of that advantage: The B.A. may mostlycorrelate with and signal for, rather than impart important qualities. (Really we all agree it’s some mix of the three factors — our differences are of emphasis.)...

We skeptics think this: Since employers can no longer measure job applicants’ IQs nor put them through long apprenticeships, graduating college is the way job-searchers signal an intelligence and diligence that college itself may have contributed little toward. Employers are (to use a little economic jargon) partially outsourcing their employee search to colleges. This is a good deal for employers, because college costs them nothing, and the social pressure to get a BA means they won’t miss too many good prospective recruits by limiting their search to college grads.

I think this has a lot of truth to it, but it can't entirely be true -- if it were, your degree would not matter but we know engineering and economics majors get hired more than poetry majors.  Though one could still stick with the strong skeptical position by arguing that degree choice is again merely a signal as to interests and outlook and a potentially even a proxy for other characteristics (to the latter point, what is your mental picture of an engineering major? a women's studies major? a politics major?  an econ major?)


  1. ParatrooperJJ:

    The problem I see is that while it may be difficult to get into these schools, it requires little work to stay in them.

  2. Professor Coldheart:

    "if it were, your degree would not matter but we know engineering and economics majors get hired more than poetry majors."

    Get hired more at jobs in line with their degree? Or get hired more, period? I know plenty of people in advertising / marketing who have degrees in art history, communications, English, philosophy, etc. In fact I know very few people whose job correlates closely with their degree.

  3. Trapper_John:

    There's a distinction here in that for some people, college as a means of acquiring a particular skill set. I majored in chemistry as an undergrad, which prepared me for something very specific--working in a professional chemistry lab. While I learned a lot of very specific chemistry on the job, the degree gave me an edge over my employer; I could leave for another chemistry position at another company as my skills were broader than the narrow pieces they taught me.

    For degrees that do not make students ready for a specific career, I agree college is probably too expensive for the value created (beyond the signals of intellegence and willingness to work at something, which could be acquired elsewhere?).

  4. Mark:

    In some states like California, you need a college degree to prove that you can read, write, and do basic math. Getting a high school diploma means nothing there. So if you go to UCXX and get your sociology degree, it is just a substitute for what a high school diploma would have given you in the 50's and 60's

    In states with good high schools, like Iowa, for instance, I would hire a B student with a High School diploma over a CA state college grad with a general studies degree, since I know the kid can do the basics. (Even in Iowa the PCisms have watered down the curriculum over the years - but the schools are still relatively good)

  5. Brad Warbiany:

    As an engineer, I'll throw my explanation out there. Varying career tracks make use of the actual engineering instruction learned in college to varying degrees. However, most engineering grads I know do need to recall some of the specific skills learned at least on an occasional basis, and some do so on a daily basis.

    There are some exceptions, of course. Very few of the electrical engineers I know actually practice analog design (which is what the bulk of your first year or so as a EE student are based on). Of the remaining majority, a decent number are actually practicing digital design, and even more have gone off into software (usually firmware rather than application development). Those who are practicing analog design are likely using their degree daily, as are anyone doing VLSI (chip design) and/or digital logic or FPGA work. Firmware engineers are using less of that EE background (and more software), although firmware typically requires fairly in-depth knowledge of whatever the firmware controls, so they do interact with the "real world" of electrical design on a semi-regular basis. They usually need to know how the actual chips they're using work at a somewhat low level to write efficient and effective firmware.

    All of these skills are acquired during college, although college merely provides the basic building blocks. They're important building blocks, but engineers right out of college take quite a lot of additional training to develop a real working knowledge of the specialty they're working in.

    The above all applies to design engineers. I'm on a different career track, with a job title of "Field Applications Engineer". Basically I'm a customer-facing technical expert who works with the engineers designing using my company's products to help them design it in and solve problems experienced along the way. As such, I'm using a lot less of my direct engineering background on a daily basis. Rather, most of what I'm doing is using general problem-solving / troubleshooting / critical thinking skills, narrowing down potential failure causes (through logic or via evidence/experimentation) until the problem is understood and/or solved. (Sometimes this results in me handing the findings to actual design engineers to implement the solution; I'm rarely responsible for the implementation). For me, the bulk of my job doesn't require my degree, per se, the degree is more of a signalling mechanism that I possess those critical thinking skills. For example, I have a coworker who has the same position I do yet no engineering degree, but his experience was learned through 20+ years within the company learning all the practical knowledge he needed to do the job. That said, even I do run into situations that call on my actual college-supplied skill set, and having that skill set does make me more effective than I'd be otherwise.

    There are a *lot* of people like me out there, who don't do design engineering every day. My job is still a direct technical position, but even so it's more about managing customer relationships and providing the design engineers working behind me with the information THEY need to actually solve a problem than it is about doing the heavy lifting myself. Many engineers go into program-management type jobs, where you need to be able to understand exactly what you're producing needs to do, and explain that to designers [and hold them accountable for it], which is helped by an engineering degree but it isn't required. Many go into technical marketing type roles, writing documentation or producing technical collateral; again it's helped to have a true engineering background but it isn't required. Quite a few go into sales, where having the engineering background may give you additional credibility in front of a customer, but it's far secondary to being able to sell.

    An engineering degree is more than just signalling. However, for all but the most heavy-duty design engineering jobs, its signalling value is probably a lot more important than most engineers would like to admit.

  6. Mark:


    It is interesting, though, that in Germany, and much of Europe what we go through in college in 4 years to get a EE degree or Computer Science degree, they do in 2 years at a technical institute. Cuts out on having to learn the Joy of Sexual Relations, Plants and you, Play in your lifetime ...

    But then again they have already learned history and Politics very well by the time they are 14 in Germany.

  7. Justin:

    Shaffer's comments are limited to BA degrees, so debating the usefulness of an engineering degree to a practicing engineer is beside the point. I don't think anyone is trying to argue that a BS degree doesn't provide any job-relevant skills or knowledge (assuming the graduate takes a job in the same field as their degree). The question was whether the same could be said of a BA degree.

    We also have two year technical degrees in the US, and they are NOT the same as a four year engineering degree. I pulled a transcript and a whopping 13% of my college course hours were not directly related to my degree.

  8. Dr. T:

    For a handful of majors (hard sciences, engineering, computer programming, accounting, pharmacy, translating, etc.), the quality of the college education has a significant bearing on hiring and on the ability to perform the relevant job. For most other majors (business, marketing, English, journalism, history, philosophy, psychology, sociology, etc.), a BA is just a signal that the degree-holder has at least average intelligence and above-average persistence and direction.

    However, both of the above paradigms are breaking down.

    My lab hired a medical technologist newly graduated from Duke University. She had a 3.2 GPA and good recommendations. She also was the least knowledgeable and least skilled rookie medical technologist I ever met. An Ivy League degree in a hard science no longer correlates with needed knowledge and skills.

    Colleges and universities have done the following: greatly increased their student populations by accepting those who never would have qualified for admission a generation ago, dumbed-down their courses so that marginal students can pass, offered remedial English and math courses that provide college credits (state accrediting boards must be completely asleep at the switch), reduced the credit-hours needed for full-time student status to 12, and encouraged students to spend 5 or 6 years getting a BA degree. The result is that a BA degree only signals that the graduate and/or his parents are willing to spend or borrow $50,000 to $300,000 for the diploma. A BA degree today is not a reliable signal for above-average traits. Once businesses realize this, the higher education industry will collapse.

  9. Brian Dunbar:

    I was a punk kid who had just done eight years in the Marines, half that time in what was then called Data Processing.* I went for a job interview, the hiring manager was MIA, the CIO came down and spent a good 90 minutes chatting me up.

    One insight he gave me was that he looked for a college degree as a signal the applicant could stick with something - anything - and see it done. He was more than willing to take my eight years of service as a signal that I could commit.

    Do people consider a BS a signal of stick-to-it-ishness or is that an old-fashioned thing, now?

    *Best of both worlds: get paid to mess around with computers _and_ guns.

  10. TheNakedBlogger:

    I agree 100% with Dr. T. I just completed my MBA and I've been helping my girlfriend who's 41 complete her Associates degree. After two years of MBA classes I didn't pick up anything new that I didn't learn during my BBA in 1997 or that I hadn't read already on my own from library books. The MBA is a pretty piece of paper that I have yet to even frame. The Associates degree level classes my girlfriend has taken over the past couple of years are even worse. The writing standards, math, and homework are what used to be High School level curriculum. The quality of education has diminished so that anyone can go to college and pass. If you want to see how bad the educational system has become do a little research on what students used to have to learn 20yrs ago or more. The curriculum was considerably more demanding. With each generation classes become simpler and simpler and college provides less and less value. A quick glance at where the U.S. ranks in education among developed nations and anyone would be depressed. Visit my rant: http://allthingspoliticallyincorrect.blogspot.com/.

  11. Brad Warbiany:


    Somewhere in the realm of 13% of my *electives* were not related to my degree (there were a certain number of "humanities" hours required even for engineering), but beyond that, there were definitely required courses that were unrelated to my EE degree. Some of the chemistry, a good portion of the physics, some of the "engineering electives" (in my case statics & dynamics, i.e. MechE courses), were definitely unrelated to my degree. Then there's the list of courses that were related to my degree but unrelated to my career (i.e. a firmware engineer doesn't need any courses in VLSI design, an analog engineer doesn't need DSP coursework) that do serve more as signalling than career preparation.

    Dr. T,

    I'd point out that it's not as much the quality of the education -- EVEN IN THE BS FIELDS -- that matters. A recent study came out showing that there is no advantage to education at an "elite" college (granted, that study was related IIRC to BA programs). Sure, grads of elite universities earn more, but when you control for the colleges people apply to, people who apply to Harvard and go to Harvard earn the same as people who have the audacity to apply to Harvard but end up going to state schools.

  12. Life insurance over 50:

    Life insurance over 50 policies are meant to provide financial support to an individual family and business in case of demise of an individual.

  13. perlhaqr:

    we know engineering and economics majors get hired more than poetry majors

    Sure, it's harder to get an engineering or econ degree than a poetry degree. Why wouldn't an employer consider that as part of the "screen"?

  14. IgotBupkis, President, United Anarchist Society:

    My own experiences in college led me to realize that the entire purpose of the BS degree was exactly that:

    You get so used to the BS being WAY UP HERE (hand 2' above head)
    That, when you get out into the real world, and the BS is only up to HERE (hand at knees),
    You go,
    WOW! This is GREAT! There's NO BS HERE!!!

    That piece of paper is a sign of you willing to put up with massive quantities of ridiculously stupid BS in order to get a stupid piece of paper.

    Employers generally like that in an employee, a good, docile sheep: "Do what you're told. Don't ask questions. Don't make waves. Moo for the camera. What did we say about questions? Right. Now, 'Moo!'...aaaaTSA good employee!"

    I do know that, after 2 years at a less prestigious university I knew vastly more about my subject major than a high school chum who went to a more prestigious university, and was a full year ahead of me, to boot. When I later transferred there for personal reasons, I understood why. While all the tools to learn what I had already learned at my less prestigious university were there, and then some, but you had to really, really go out of your way to get access to them. The classes did nothing to encourage learning in the least.

    The problem with our modern edumacationalistic system is that it's designed to produce good factory workers and docile sheep, not knowledge workers and independent thinkers.

    That's going to be our downfall over the next 50-odd years. Someone's going to get in charge in a small, upcoming nation and do something to suck all the brains out of the world into their nation, with massively significant economic, political, and military consequences.