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Master Thesis Reader - Research and Innovation in Higher Education

The impact of university prestige on graduate employability

Georgiana Mihuț


Higher education is the space of a contradictory phenomenon in relation to questions of social equity. On one hand, education often brings well-deserved benefits to hard working individuals and it managed to achieve unprecedented redistribution of privilege through the expansion process and by rewarding individuals that succeed based on their potential rather than based on their social origin. On the other hand, education brings further disparities between the privileged and the less privileged.

The first level of disparities created rests between those that attend and those that do not attend higher education institutions. The ones with higher education access and ability for completion will receive benefits that students outside the realm of this possibility, or without the capacity for completion, will not. Academic articles illustrating pecuniary and non-pecuniary returns of higher education spurred in recent years (Oreopoulos & Salvanes, 2011, Romele & Purgailis, 2013, Menon, 2008, Krueger, 1972, Maani, 1996, Tilak, 1989, Toh & Wong, 1999). The graduates are generally presented as better off than non-graduates and empirical data substantiates these claims.

The second level of disparities refers to the unequal value of degrees. Intuitive cases are reflected in the occupational prestige attached to various fields of specialization and the socio-economical indicators correlated with their prestige (Goyder, 2005, MacKinnon & Langford, 1994, Norredam & Album, 2007, OECD, 2013). The inequality between fields of study is matched, if not surpassed by the inequality between various institutions of higher education. Institutions that Harvey & Green (1993) define as representative for ‘quality as excellence’ carry a higher level of prestige, here classical examples include Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge. Graduates of such places are in the favorable position to use this prestige as a token in acquiring further potent social privilege (Oprisko, 2012, Grafton & Townsend, 2008).

The current paper joins the debate on equity and higher education by analyzing disparities between graduates of higher education institutions with a varying level of prestige. Specifically, the transfer of prestige in the employment process of graduates is analyzed. Representatives of the demand side of the employment process, recruiters and employers, are interviewed to understand the ramifications of university prestige when selecting candidates for job openings. Signaling theory and human capital theory are simultaneously used to analyze the results. Interviewees are asked to discuss aspects of the recruitment process, their perception over universities and the level of prestige associated with various types of institutions and programs, and to present their understanding of the relation between university prestige and employability. The interviews are conducted in two countries: Romania and Germany.

The primary aim of this paper is to understand the impact of university prestige in the employment process of graduates. The second aim is to gather a better understanding over the context dependent perceptions of prestige by collecting data from two different countries. The general pattern of what constitutes prestige might affect employability in unexpected ways in the two analyzed contexts, and this qualitative study aims at understanding how prestige might be perceived differently and act differently in various environments. The third aim is to understand the perception of university prestige from the perspective of outside actors to the university environment, namely employers and recruiters. Here, the paper engages with the debate of what constitutes university prestige and if definitions common to the higher education arena, where university prestige is often equivalent with prestige as illustrated by research output, match outside definitions of the prestige of higher education institutions.

The thesis draws on multiple concepts pertaining to multiple fields of study in order to create a well-rounded theoretical framework. The concepts of prestige (Weber, 2010, Bourdieu & Wacquant, 2013, Gil-White & Henrich, 2000), diversification (Zha, 2009, Birnbaum, 1983) and excellence (Taylor & Braddock, 2007, Montesinos et. al. 2008, Dill & Soo, 2005, Hazelkorn, 2009) in higher education, employability (Harvey, 2001) and meritocracy (Mason, 2001) are used to define and understand the dependent and independent variables of this study. Human capital theory (Schultz, 1959, Strober, 1990, Mincer, 1974, Becker, 1975) and signaling theory (Murray & Moore, 2009, Spence, 1973, Moore, 2003, Backes-Gellner & Tuor, 2010) are used to interpret the emerging results.

Drawing on the concepts and theoretical frameworks presented above, six working hypothesis were developed:

H1. In the perception of recruiters, skills are an important variable influencing the employment process

H2: Definitions of university prestige, as viewed by interviewees, differ from university prestige viewed as research excellence.

H3: In the perception of recruiters, the prestige of the university an applicant graduated from has an impact in the employment process.

H4: Areas of perceived difference between universities, as viewed by recruiters, determine the instance of the impact of university prestige.

H5: The aggregated prestige of the German higher education system is likely to positively affect the chances of employment of an applicant in the Romanian labor market

H6: The local differences in university prestige are likely to determine the impact of university prestige in the labor market.


In order to gather respondents that have accumulated a wide and diverse experience in the selection and employment process, but at the same time maintain clarity and focus, both representatives of recruitment companies and representatives of human resources departments are interviewed. A sample of five interviewees from Germany and five interviewees from Romania is selected.

An interview is generally defined as a ‘conversation with a purpose’ (Berg, 2001, p. 6). Here, the purpose is to gather insights from recruiters on the impact of university prestige in the employment of graduates in Romania and Germany. For this purpose, a semi-structured interview (Berg, 2001, Doody & Noonan, 2013) seems to offer both the rigor necessary in exposing different interviewees to similar stimuli, thus assuring comparability between interviews, and the flexibility to accommodate for the different experiences and nuanced perceptions interviewees are equipped with.

Open-ended questions are the main type of questions used during the interviews, but ranking questions and written questions are included also. In constructing the interview questions, particular attention is given to avoiding bias and ambiguity (Keats, 2001). The interview conversation is divided into topical stages (Hermanovicz, 2002). Pre-prepared questions embrace a sequential structure with simple feedback loops, where the interviewer returns to crucial responses in order to avoid bias (Keats, 2001).

The interviewees that generously agreed to part-take in this study are experienced in working with different fields of recruitment and have conducted their activity for multiple companies of varying size. They engaged in recruitment activities at the local, regional, national, and in the case of one respondent, at an international level. With one exception, all interviewees that work for a human resources department of a company have gathered experience in at least two different companies. The breath of the experiences of interviewees facilitated the process of gathering multiple perspectives about the relation between university prestige and the employment process of graduates.

Thematic analysis as ‘a method for identifying, analyzing and reporting patterns (themes) within data’ is used for the purpose of conducting the data analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2008. p. 79). This research blends the inductive thematic data analysis process proposed by Braun and Clarke (2008) consisting of six phases for conducting thematic analysis with a deductive approach.

Key findings

Perhaps ambitiously, this study advanced six hypotheses. This section with attempt at using the data collected as part of this thesis to confirm or infirm each of them.

The first hypothesis suggested that, in the perception of recruiters, skills are an important variable influencing the employment process. In the perception of employers, skills are not only an important variable in the employment process, but the most important one. Human capital theory rightfully predicted the importance of skills for employers, and this study only adds to the long tradition of academic work substantiating this claim.

The second hypothesis suggested that definitions of university prestige, as viewed by interviewees, differ from university prestige viewed as research excellence. The discourse of university prestige within the academia, driven by the popularity of university rankings defines university prestige mainly in relation research excellence (Montesino et. al. 2008, Dill & Soo, 2005, Hazelkorn, 2009). On the other hand, there is little reason to assume that employers might be more interested in the research outcome of a university than the quality a university equips its graduates with. This is the logic that informed the second hypothesis of this study. Most surely, this logic is supported by evidence from the interviews collected. University prestige was perceived to originate from the high academic standards of a program by most interviewees. For some participants, prestige was associated with the networks that universities have with established companies. In the very few instances where research quality was mentioned as a source of university prestige, research was perceived to have a positive contribution to the specialized education students receive. As such, for the participants of this study, university prestige is primarily not associated with research excellence.

Hypothesis three stipulated that, in the perception of recruiters, the prestige of the university an applicant graduated from has an impact in the employment process. Three types of impact were identified throughout the responses of the interviewees: conscious use, unconscious use and conscious avoidance. The impact of university prestige thus ranged from significant to none between the interviewees. Still, looking at the aggregated responses, it is difficult to ignore the instances where the impact of university prestige becomes apparent. Moreover, it was expected that the answers of the interviewees might have been affected by the social desirability bias, which gives the researcher reasons to believe that not all relevant practices to the research question were shared openly. The conclusion remains that university prestige has a contributory role in the employment process, thus confirming the third hypothesis. Further research is needed to confirm the extent and the scale of this impact.

The next hypothesis provided an educated guess in an attempt to identify where does the perception of university prestige derive from. The educated guess was that areas of perceived difference between universities, as viewed by recruiters, determine the instance of the impact of university prestige. There is little evidence in the responses given by interviewees to substantiate this claim. Often, it was difficult for interviewees to identify areas of difference between universities, and when such differences were presented, they were not linked to the perception of university prestige, and thus, they were not linked to the impact prestige might have in the employment process. The only exception to this is encountered in perceptions of the difference between public universities and private universities in Romania. Here interviewees actively suggested there are instances where private universities are preferred to a lesser extent than applicants from public universities, and that such candidates are subject to deeper scrutiny during the selection process. Overall, the responses of the interviewees only partially support hypothesis four.

The next hypothesis aimed at gathering insights on the impact of university prestige at a transnational level. The impact of the institutional prestige and the aggregated prestige of the German higher education system in the Romanian labor market was investigated. The fifth hypothesis suggested that the aggregated prestige of the German higher education system is likely to positively affect the chances of employment of an applicant in the Romanian labor market. The questions pertaining to this hypothesis were asked only to the Romanian interviewees. Most interviewees suggested that having a diploma from Germany would have a positive effect in the employment process. One of the interview exercises asked Romanian participants to select between candidates that came from different prestigious universities in Romania or from a prestigious university in Germany. All respondents presented with this choice selected, for one reason or another, the representatives from the German university. An additional exercise required Romanian interviewees to select between a person that graduated in Romania and a person that graduated in Germany. No university name was provided. Again, a preference was given to graduates from Germany. In actuality, situations where graduates from German universities apply for job positions in the Romanian labor market are rare. They are likely rare enough for the value of a German degree to offer a competitive advantage to graduates. It is in the instance of observing the evidence for this hypothesis that one can claim the explanatory power of signaling theory, thus confirming hypothesis five.

The last hypothesis aimed at observing if the local differences in prestige are likely to determine the impact of university prestige in the labor market. In order to gather an answer to this hypothesis, it is important to look at the sample of this study. In the case or Romania, recruiters from three cities were interviewed: Bucharest, Cluj-Napoca and Timisoara. Each of the cities targeted is recognized as a university city and has respectively one or several universities that are perceived as prestigious at a national scale. In the case of Germany, given the difficulty of gathering participants, a different sample structure was followed, so the observations here apply less in the case of Germany than the case of Romania. In the case of Romania, unquestionably, the effect of the local prestigious university was higher than the effect of other prestigious universities at a national level. As such, the prestige of universities from Cluj-Napoca had a strong effect in the local employment process. The same applies for Timisoara and Bucharest. Interestingly, when the option to select an applicant from a German university was introduced to interviewees, a preference was given to the German university. Firstly, this suggests that the prestige of a local institution might have a local effect, and thus small degrees of prestige might have a large impact at a local level. Secondly, the prestige of local universities might be trumped in the few cases where an applicant with an outside degree that is perceived as more prestigious enters the selection competition.

Implications and recommendations

The recommendations listed here address four main stakeholders potentially interested in the provisional answers given to the research question. As illustrated in the data analysis question, university prestige has a varying impact in the employment process of graduates that ranges from significant for few interviewees, to none in other cases. This result might be interesting for employers, universities, graduates and potential employees and legislators.

Employers might be interested in understanding the variables that are generally used in the employment practice in order to compare their own recruitment process with the practice of other companies. This research cautions employers in reflecting over the implications of using university prestige in making recruitment choices. Surely, every employer wants to maximize the productivity of each company, but there is no reason why the already fairly established recruitment process of measuring skills would not meet this purpose. While currently there are no legal implications for taking into account the university name of graduates in the recruitment process, it is still fairly easy to see how such a use might be perceived as deviating from non-discriminatory principles, as defined by interviewees themselves as part of this research.

University representatives might be interested to know that in some circumstances, the names of the universities they are representing might have an effect in the employment process of their graduates. It might be comforting for them to know that skills are still the most decisive factor. One of the mechanisms to either reverse or mediate the impact of university names in the employment process is to establish better networks with companies, as suggested by few interviewees themselves. Still, it is also important to note that often the effect of university prestige is driven by the focus of the higher education arena to enter the rankings and prestige game. In such a context, effects of university prestige outside of the higher education arena are understandable. The problematic aspect is that often, actors outside the educational arena are not fully equipped to understand the limitations of university prestige as measured by university rankings.

Graduates and potential employees should understand that sometimes, more variables than the ones advertised in job descriptions determine the outcomes of the employment process. Still, according to the interviewees that took part in this thesis, matching the skills required by a position will be recognized and rewarded. Such skills are not only the responsibility of universities to teach and enhance, but the responsibility of students also. A graduate looking for a job can do two things to enhance their employment opportunities: be good and apply to as many job openings as possible.

Legislation aimed at preventing discrimination currently focuses on preventing discrimination based on unalterable criteria, or indices, such as gender, religion and race. Understandably, discrimination based on alterable criteria such as the name a university someone graduated from would be both difficult to prove and to regulate. The consideration for such a legislative case should be based on much more thorough investigations than the one allowed by the limitations of this study. Still, such investigations should be made in order to grant every potential employee equal opportunities in the selection process.


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