In a society of labels, brands, ranks and pedigrees, does having a particular institution’s name on your diploma bring more than just pride? While most agree that a quality education can be obtained at small, lesser-known universities, a well-connected institution can offer a gateway to a world of opportunities, among them, increased access, exposure and income.
Paying for the most basic education is no small feat in today’s challenging fiscal environment. So the question then becomes does investing in an Ivy League education provide entry into the highest ranks of leadership in government and corporate America. It may seem that way when you consider the alma maters of those within the highest ranks of government — the Obama administration Cabinet. Most Cabinet members, such as Shaun L.S. Donovan, John Kerry and Ernest Moniz, have degrees from Harvard, Yale and Stanford, respectively.
Giovanna Robledo, who graduated last month from Olympian High School in Chula Vista, Calif., says she is counting on Harvard to open doors for her once she enters in the fall. The Ivy League institution was her first choice to prepare for a career as an immigration lawyer. She plans to study psychology before applying to Harvard’s or Yale’s law school.
“I’ve heard about Harvard since I was a little girl,” says Robledo, who has a brother in his junior year at Harvard. “When you go out in the world having studied at names like Harvard and Yale, eyebrows are raised and it opens more doors for people who study there. They really do have a lot of resources.
“I feel really blessed to be going to a college that is investing so much time in students and has built up a reputation,” continues Robledo, whose family came to the U.S. from Mexico.
Dr. Leonard Dawson, former president of Voorhees College in Denmark, N.C., points out that a quality education can be gained at many institutions throughout the country, but he does recognize the attraction to a strong network at universities like Harvard.
“It’s no question, in terms of preparation, that it does matter what school you go to, but you can get an equally good education at some schools that are not as well known,” says Dawson. “You can get just as good of an education at HBCUs. However, the question the student has to ask is what are their career goals? What kind of environment maximizes their potential?”
Challenges to race-conscious admissions
If, in fact, attending prestigious universities can open the door for job offers from top companies across the country, then the potential for admittance to some of the country’s most prestigious institutions may be in jeopardy due to legal attacks on affirmative action and race-conscious admissions. Several court cases have cropped up since the beginning of the millennium, the most recent being the Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin case that the Supreme Court sent back to the lower courts for review last month.
Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin revolves around Abigail Fisher, a graduate of Louisiana State University, who claims that minority students were given admission preference to the University of Texas, her dream school, in spite of an alleged lack of merit.
Texas law requires state universities to automatically grant admission to applicants who were in the top 10 percent of their high school class, but the University of Texas at Austin allows race to be used as a factor for admission of students who do not meet that criteria.
The challenge to race-conscious admissions is nothing new; however, what is most significant about the case is that a ruling could impact access to “power centers,” where many leaders in the highest ranks of government and corporate America have hailed. In addition, many are concerned about returning to a largely segregated college environment if diversity requirements are eliminated.
Historically Black colleges and universities have played a significant role in educating some of America’s top leaders. Many continue to thrive, while others have succumbed to reduced budgets, expenses of technological advancements, students with a broader range of school selections and tuition hikes.
Those that remain strong and vibrant have created programs that are in demand and maintain strong alumni, community and corporate networks that have proved to be effective in making employment and business connections.
“I think people reach out in any leadership roles to find people who support their goals and who are more like them. That’s a natural tendency,” says Dawson, who is president and CEO of The Dawson Group of Virginia, Inc., which provides organizational development consulting and training.
Howard University — with its well-known graduates, celebrity connections and strategic location in the nation’s capital — is among the HBCUs that have produced graduates who are top in their fields, including communications, business and the sciences. Spelman, Morehouse and Xavier are other examples of HBCUs that have created and branded strong programs that include a strong network. Those networks often translate into internships, mentors, employment and successful business deals.
Why it matters
The reality is that some employers target certain universities when they are looking for a particular type of student, whether it is based on the institution’s reputation, partnerships, alumni influence or recruiter preferences.
A quality education can be gained at institutions of all sizes, but for certain fields or if students are seeking entry into higher levels of leadership, the institution’s influence may play an even greater role.
“The key is that you’ve got to have access to information in order to make informed decisions,” explains Dawson about the importance of being connected. “How you get that may vary, including whether it is access to the people who possess that distinct knowledge.”
As the country tries to stabilize economically, the backdrop of court decisions on affirmative action could potentially limit access for students of color at top-ranked institutions.
While some may have to take a good, hard look at the payback of going into debt and paying top dollar for attending elite institutions where tuitions are increasing, many insist that the opportunities for admission need to continue to be available.
The current debates are focused on losing ground at institutions that have learned to place a high premium on diversity and what it brings to the institution and the workforce. For example, within the last couple of years, Harvard introduced a free education for undergraduate students from low-income families.
“When only 10 percent of the students in elite higher education come from families in the lower half of the income distribution, we are not doing enough. We are not doing enough in bringing elite higher education to the lower half of the income distribution,” says Harvard’s former president, Lawrence H. Summers, in announcing the program that targets families earning less than $60,000 a year with an honor student. Yale, Princeton and many other elite institutions also offer support for high-achieving minority or low-income students.
Employers are also weighing in on the affirmative action debate. More than 50 large corporations sided with President Obama in the Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin case and filed a brief urging the justices to accept an admissions policy that looks at various socioeconomic factors, including race.
In the brief, the companies, including American Express, Pfizer, Kraft Foods and General Electric, wrote, “The rich variety of ideas, perspectives, and experiences to which both minority and non-minority students are exposed in a diverse university setting … are essential to the students’ ability to function in and contribute to the increasingly diverse community in the United States.”