Designer Degrees: Looking Beneath the Labels

28 May

Notice: This post is one that has been tinkering in my head for weeks.   Thus, there are lots of digressions.  You have been warned.

Sniff. . .Smell that?  The sweet scent of hope tinged with the stench of reality signals the nearing end of graduation season.

A week ago, I joined the ranks of millions of 2010 college graduates, scads of students all vying to get our hands on the pieces of paper that we invested four years and thousands of dollars into receiving.  Alas, with diploma in hand, this quest is complete.  We have reached the pot of gold, the end of the rainbow, the emerald city.  For now, anyway.

But amidst the celebrations and swelling of pride, one vital question yet hangs in the air, a question that no one seems willing or able to answer: Will our college education fulfill its promise?

Will it live up to its guarantee of success, wealth and opportunity?

Reality check.

Regardless of whether one graduates from Babson, the University of Phoenix, or some random no-name school,

the name etched on the degree followed by the name of one’s respective degree means absolutely nothing.


Information is a commodity—the content of which doesn’t vary from institution to institution.  The foundations of education and intellectual theories don’t vary depending on where one attends school.  In fact, an avid reader could learn everything he or she could possibly want to know for free by reading books or utilizing internet service at a local library–or dare I say, even while imprisoned.

“Many who today hear me somewhere in person, or on television, or those who read something I’ve said, will think I went to school far beyond the eighth grade.  This impression is due entirely to my prison studies.”

“I don’t think anybody ever got more out of going to prison than I did.  In fact, prison enabled me to study far more intensively than I would have if my life had gone differently and I had attended some college.

I imagine that one of the biggest troubles with colleges is there are too many distractions, too much panty-raiding, fraternities, and boola-boola and all of that.  Where else but in a prison could I have attacked my ignorance by being able to study intensively sometimes as much as fifteen hours a day?”

–Malcolm X

Years ago, so few people were pursuing college, that simply having a degree meant access to the fast-lane and rapid ascension.  That is no longer the case.  The sheer quantity of college graduates (supply) erodes the value of everyone’s degree (demand).


Image by Ray Bartkus


Thus, the quality of one’s education or the perceived quality of one’s education has become much more important.

And perception is reality.  So just like when a can of soup is welcomed more warmly when the label Campbell’s is wrapped around it, graduates bearing the names of the nation’s top brands have a more welcome reception in the job market.

While in China, I remember telling a student at Fudan University in Beijing that I attended school in Boston.  “Harvard?” she immediately inquired.  “No, Babson,” I stated.  Sigh.  I wasn’t surprised.  There are people within the state of Massachusetts that stare at me blankly when I state my alma mater’s name.  What does this infer about the value of my degree?

Sigh.  It seems to be all about the marketing.  Yes, colleges market.  They sell their legacies.  They sell their alumni networks.  They sell their faculties.   And they sell their special ingredient: their specialty curriculum. Babson sells its dominance in entrepreneurship.  Everybody knows Babson as the numero uno school in the world in Entrepreneurial Studies.  If they don’t, then they are unfamiliar with the school.

Ivy League school sells their prestige, its rich histories and legacies of excellence.

Some even engage in product placement to cement themselves in the public arena as a premiere college.

Exhibit A: Legally Blonde

Elle attended Harvard Law School.

Movies often have their characters attend our nation’s most prestigious institutions.  While this tactic improves the credibility of the character and is used as a means of affinity with the audience, it also reinforces the college’s brand.

Just like placing a bottle of Evian into an affluent couple’s home lends the scene validity (reference to previous post).

Most institutions also brand themselves through merchandising.

Almost every college or university has a bookstore on-campus that offers visitors and students alike the opportunity to don the college’s name across their heads or busts.  Come on now.  That’s free advertising: Free advertising the wearer purchases.

Some have grown beyond the limits of campus.  I’ll pick on Harvard once more.  After graduating from Babson, my family and I spent the night in the Westin Waterfront Hotel.  Much to my surprise, the hotel’s gift shop sells everything from Harvard shotglasses to Harvard caps and sweatshirts etc.

My sister bought a keychain.

What does it all mean?  Does a Harvard grad have a greater likelihood at success than another of similar class rank, g.p.a., and ambition simply because he/she is from Hahh-vard?

Of course not.  Though one school’s network may have more influence or prestige or connections (old boy’s club) than another, graduating with a particular school’s name etched across your diploma does not mean instant success or failure: The graduate alone decides his or her fate.  I’d argue that success is not limited to those with degrees.

Check out this speech by Steve Jobs at the 2005 Stanford Commencement Ceremony.  Think of the parodox: a college drop-out speaking at a college commencement ceremony.  It’s quite inspirational.

And for fun, listen to Conan O’Brien, a Harvard grad, talk about the perils of graduating from a college with such a strong legacy.  It’s hilarious and shows that the road isn’t paved for the Ivy Leaguers.

I must admit, when it comes to effective branding, many schools can take a lesson or two from Harvard.

The moral of the story is. . .drumroll please: it’s not the label, but what’s inside the can of soup that counts.  In other words, while graduating from a designer college has its perks, it isn’t necessary for success.

Until next time. . .



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