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(Yvonne Berg/Yvonne Berg/The Globe and Mail)

Economy Lab

Do employers care about a university's reputation? Add to ...

Frances Woolley is a professor of economics at Carleton University, where she teaches public finance. Her recent Economy Lab posts can be found here.



Which university should you choose if your goal is to get a job when you graduate?



The question is surprisingly difficult to answer. Raw job placement numbers confound the myriad factors that influence labour market success. For example, students from Mount Royal University graduate into the Alberta labour market, while students from University of Windsor head into the Ontario labour market. That makes more of a difference to the students’ job market prospects than the quality of their undergraduate instruction.



Reliable information comparing the long-term success rates of graduates across universities is extremely hard to find. Universities lose track of their alumni, especially the unsuccessful ones. Government surveys, such as the Census, collect information about a person’s field of study, but not the name of their undergraduate university.



Consequently, I was fascinated when I stumbled across an obscure table -- “Appendix Table 3” -- while reading about a study carried out by Philip Oreopoulos three years ago (available here).



The original purpose of Professor Oreopoulos’s research had nothing to do with assessing various universities. He wanted to find out whether or not immigrants, and people with non-European names, were at a disadvantage in the labour market. His research team created 6,000 artificial resumes, some with names like Carrie Martin, and some with names like Fang Wang. Each fabricated job applicant was set up with an e-mail account -- carriemartin@gmailcom, say. The research team then used the invented resumes and e-mail accounts to apply for real jobs, identified by searching through sites like monster.ca.



The imaginary job applicants needed educational credentials, so the research team used a computer program to assign a university degree to each resume. Some listed degrees from universities outside of Canada. My focus here is on the 3,000 plus resumes that listed degrees from one of six Canadian universities: Brock, Queen’s, Ryerson, University of Toronto -- Mississauga, University of Toronto, and University of Waterloo.



For resumes submitted under English-sounding names, such as Michael Smith and Jill Wilson, the choice of university did not seem to matter very much. For example, 15.8 per cent of the job applications listing a degree from University of Toronto Mississauga led to an email saying “would you like to come in for an interview?” as compared to 13.6 per cent of those listing a University of Toronto degree. That difference is so small that it might just reflect random variation -- some typos on the University of Toronto resumes, for example.



One possible take-away from this finding is that a person with an English-sounding name can choose any undergraduate institution and do just fine. The fictitious resumes in the study, however, also listed four to six years of high quality, relevant, work experience. My alternative take-away is that employers focus on the last thing on a person’s resume, and place more weight on a person’s most recent work experience than his undergraduate education.



For resumes submitted under non-European names, such as Maya Kumar and Ali Saeed, the choice of university seems to matter more. Resumes listing degrees from research intensive universities such as University of Waterloo and Queen’s were significantly more likely to generate call-backs than degrees from more teaching-oriented institutions. Interestingly, resumes listing a degree from University of Waterloo, Queen’s and University of Toronto had similar call-back rates whether they were submitted under an English-sounding name or a non-European one.



A university degree is a signal, an indication of the type of person a potential employee is, and the abilities he has. The results reported here suggest that employers interpret signals differently, depending upon who sends them. If a job candidate is smart, well-qualified, and a little bit lucky, she might still get ahead. If she’s not, it’s a tough labour market out there.



Author's note: While the numbers reported here are taken from Professor Oreopoulos’s research, the interpretation placed upon them is entirely my own.



Economy Lab, winner of the 2011 Eppy Award for best business blog. Follow Economy Lab on twitter

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