I've been investigating for some time now, the importance of credentials in hiring. Earlier this week over on HRExaminer, I wrote about how the conventional wisdom of hiring says to look at credentials, but that perspective is wrong. Everyone's wowed by the resume of the new grad with the Harvard degree.  Penn State? Virginia Tech? University of Minnesota? The common response: "that's a great state school." I've always been interested in the debate over college choice. I've long wondered the role university and ranking plays in hiring and in actual performance.  Does a degree from a higher ranked school mean better performance? If is DOES, shouldn't recruiters pay close attention to how and why students end up at those schools beyond the basics--SAT score and high school GPA? And if it DOESN'T (my hypothesis), why would a firm only focus on top schools?

Cornell professor, Mike Lovenheim recently looked at how the housing market affected college choice.  It seems like an odd economic correlation, but I was intrigued. He found that "students who attain more housing wealth in high school are more likely to go to flagship schools."

In an NPR story on Lovenheim's research, reporter Renee Montagne asks why this matters--why the lower value of a house matters if the family is still living in that home. Part of it is the equity and liquidity according to Shankar Vedantam who investigated this research for NPR.

"Many students are internalizing how poor their parents feel in a bad housing market and this is limiting their choices about where to go," Vedantam reports. He goes on to say that it's not about students applying to flagship schools and not getting in---they are not even applying. So what does that mean to recruiters?

It's no secret in university recruiting that companies have "core schools"--these are the schools where they focus their attention, time and travels. They often use rankings, alumni, curriculum strength and current employee set to create their lists.  Some focus heavily on the top schools--in fact, consulting firms like McKinsey, Bain and BCG stake their reputations on it. It's easier to sell an engagement staffed with top-tier talent. Top-tier as defined by...credentials.

McKinsey's university recruiting site claims it has a wide "diversity" of schools. But a source tells me the schools they've traditionally focused on for positions across the US are primarily Harvard, Yale, University of Pennsylvania, MIT, Stanford, Brown and Dartmouth. I also know plenty of people who have been told "we don't recruit from your school."

So let's do the math: poor economy = fewer kids from struggling families applying to flagship schools = fewer kids from struggling families make it into firms like McKinsey.

What's interesting about this dilemma is the hurt it puts on diversity. Not traditional diversity--gender and ethnicity--but diversity of understanding, thought and experience which greatly defines the spirit of debate and innovation in an organization.  If your firm is only hiring from flagship schools and those schools are populated less and less with a diversity of economic background, the diversity of your firm will suffer.

Between my post earlier this week on  HRExaminer, and this one, I think recruiting only at flagship schools is a cop-out. It's easy to define candidates by credentials and assume they're smart if they have the mark of Harvard and Yale. And they probably are. I know many graduates from those schools who are top performers with a keen intellect.  But it's ridiculous to think that students at other universities aren't as smart, and studies like this demonstrate another reason why.

It's also preposterous to assume that the experience at flagship schools is better. I sat next to a Harvard professor a few weeks ago on a plane and he laughed when I asked about the experience. He said his students are all smart, but regardless of the experience, are divided pretty equally in three camps: eager to work hard, lazy and assuming they're deserved of high grades, and not interested in following the rules--just looking to do their own research or their own thing. Sure-it's a focus group of one, but if I'm hiring for a new consultant, two-thirds of those students won't make my cut.

So here's my question. Are we getting lazy as recruiters? Is it just easier to sell a perfect fit candidate to the hiring manager and impress with credentials? Are we only hiring rich kids?

Or do we actually have the guts to rethink things and focus on performance? On evaluating candidates and really looking to see what drives that performance. You tell me.