Does your alma mater matter?

Where you attended university might not be all that important

Does your alma mater matter?
Brian Kreissl

By Brian Kreissl

According to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, the university where I completed my initial undergraduate education, the University of Aberdeen, ranked 158th in the world this year. Considering the number of universities in the world, that’s a pretty good score, although it isn’t exactly on the level of Oxford, Cambridge or Harvard.

According to the same table, the highest ranked Canadian institution, the University of Toronto, came in at number 21, which is fantastic. Obviously, U of T graduates have a lot to be proud of, and that is a pretty impressive accolade for the institution, but how much does your alma mater actually matter?

Only one piece of the puzzle

All else being equal, the university or college you graduated from can make a difference, but that’s only one piece of the puzzle along with many other factors taken into consideration by a prospective or current employer with regard to decisions relating to selection or promotion.

Factors like choice of major, concentration or minor, grades, program of study, work experience, specific skills, competencies, professional qualifications, job title, industry background, specific accomplishments, work projects, additional education, performance, potential, technical, communication and interpersonal skills and attitude often count for more than which university you graduated from (if any).

While there are some exceptions such as the field of academia, the prestige of the postsecondary institution you graduated from may matter little. In fact, if you graduated from a lower ranked but more relevant and practical program you could have an edge over those from more prestigious universities.

It also depends what you were able to do with the education you received. Did you get good marks, and did you actually learn anything (either in terms of specific or transferrable skills)? How did your program relate to your choice of career?

I am a firm believer in the concept of value-add, and I believe some of the best academic institutions and programs are the ones that are able to offer transformative learning experiences that really challenge learners and boost their knowledge and skills. While some would argue it’s purely about the piece of paper and a means to securing a better career, education should also be about learning and growing as an individual and contributor to society.

I also think it’s important to remember that many academic institutions cover the same material and use the same textbooks, and sometimes world-renowned experts in their fields at prestigious institutions aren’t necessarily the best teachers. There’s also the issue of class sizes and the level of personal attention given to students by faculty.

Because of that, education is often what you make of it, and the most prestigious education isn’t always the best. Everyone is different, and what might be the right program for others may not be the best option for you.

Academic standards and prestige

According to some studies, the percentage of really successful people who attended Ivy League schools is actually quite low. In fact, some people argue that simply applying to an elite school is a predictor of success. This shows that it is the ability, aptitude, confidence and ambition that matter more than the actual degree.

I also don’t believe standards are all that different among Canadian universities. The way our system works, the lowest ranked university isn’t going to be all that different from the highest in terms of quality.

I am a firm believer in the community college system, having attended both university and college. The practicality, shorter duration and lower cost of college make it an attractive option for many people.

I also hold schools like Ryerson University in Toronto in high regard because they combine the practicality of college with the academics of a university. But I could be biased given that Ryerson is another one of my almae matres (having completed four certificates there).

In most cases, once you’ve been in the workforce for a significant period of time, your academic institution isn’t going to matter that much, and neither are grades all that important. Your choice of major may be a factor in determining whether you get called for an interview, but even an irrelevant major can be overcome with relevant experience and possibly some additional coursework.

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