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

April 7, 2021

Photo of college campus

The U.S. college admissions scandal that erupted two years ago had reverberations from coast (Yale and Georgetown) to coast (USC, Stanford, UCLA) 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 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 the U.S. News & World Report’s college rankings as a recruiting guide, it may be time to rethink how — and where — you fill your talent pipeline. Here are four tactics to help you find the skilled workers your company needs to get ahead and stay there:

1. Throw away your list of select schools and broaden your search

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.”

An article in the Harvard Business Review reinforces Michelle Obama’s counsel to widen the search beyond the dozen highly selective colleges and universities from which everyone seems to recruit. “[M]any high-achievers,” HBR says, “especially from disadvantaged backgrounds, attend less prestigious universities for reasons having nothing to do with ability. Yet, by adopting exclusionary school lists and school quotas, firms systematically close their eyes to talent that resides elsewhere.”

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.”

2. Consider online assessments to screen for the soft and hard skills you need

Rather than relying on U.S. News & World Report to magically fathom a candidate’s skills and potential (“Oh, I see here that you went to Princeton, so you must be a fantastic collaborator and communicator”), turn to one of the many online tools that employ AI and neuroscience research to assess an applicant.

For example, Koru’s predictive hiring platform involves a 20-minute online assessment of seven critical soft skills, including grit, teamwork, and curiosity. Other platforms that can help you determine a candidate’s personality, aptitude, or soft skills include HireSelect, Plum, Pymetrics, and The Predictive Index.

Online tools can also be helpful for screening candidates at scale for hard skills. LinkedIn Skill Assessments can help members verify their technical, business, and design skills. This series includes 52 assessments for technical skills (for example, C++, Python, and JavaScript); 14 assessments for business skills (QuickBooks and Microsoft Excel, Word, and PowerPoint); and 21 assessments for design skills ( iMovie, and Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, and InDesign). Members who pass the assessment receive a skill badge to include on their LinkedIn profile, making them easier for employers to identify.

3. Use simulations and auditions to see what candidates can do — in real time

Another way to see how candidates might handle your specific opening is to use a job simulation or audition. McKinsey & Company, the famed consulting firm, presents candidates with “real client scenarios” to test their skills and get a window into their problem-solving chops. Lloyds Banking Group and L’Oréal both use virtual reality tools to see how would-be employees handle real-life situations.

Businesses can also follow the lead of the National Football League and have candidates demonstrate their hard skills along with important soft skills. The NFL scouting combine asks athletes to “speed date” through interviews with the league’s teams. Players also execute drills and practice repetitions that relate to the specific position they play.

Education is another section that tries to level the playing field. For decades, schools have given teaching candidates a chance to conduct a classroom lesson in front of a roomful of unprepped students. Editors and other communications professionals often ask candidates to line-edit an article and write headlines for it. Mogul, the social media platform for women, takes it a step further. After several rounds of interviews, candidates for jobs with the company come in and work for a day.

4. Focus on training rather than academic credentials to grow your pipeline

A classic college education, particularly at a top-ranked university, isn’t really designed or intended to prepare a graduate for a job. It aims, instead, to hone a student’s critical thinking and problem-solving skills, provide a broad look at the wider world, and develop a sense of social responsibility. It’s highly desirable and relevant to being a good citizen in the community but it is not necessarily a ticket to a soaring career.

If your company has a robust training program, you can help employees from a broad range of backgrounds succeed by providing them with exactly the tools they need to work productively. And training programs are a solid investment as they’ve been shown to increase both engagement and retention.

Final thoughts: 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 our company 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. In the middle of “Operation Varsity Blues,” Rick Singer (portrayed by actor Matthew Modine, who adheres to a script crafted from the transcripts of FBI wiretaps) is telling a client about how he gets students testing accommodations even though they don’t have the medically diagnosed learning differences needed to qualify for them. Without a trace of irony, he adds, “The playing field’s not fair.”

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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