An Ivy League Degree Sets You Up For Career Success — If You're White

An aerial view of the Ivy League Harvard Campus

Attending an elite university is supposed to set you up for a lifetime of success — and for the most part, such schools deliver on the goods. But some of the most important post-graduate life advantages afforded by a top-tier diploma may not matter if you're not white.

According to a study conducted by the University of Michigan and Pennsylvania State University and published in the journal Social Forces, black graduates from selective schools only do as well as white graduates from less selective schools when it comes to getting a job right out of college. What's more, according to the paper, when a job offer does roll in for a black candidate, it tends to be less prestigious and offer a lower starting salary than an offer for a white candidate.

"I think many people might assume that education truly is 'the great equalizer' and that someone who might overcome all odds and go to Harvard would be able to do very well in life regardless of their skin color," Michael Gaddis, study author and University of Michigan sociologist, told Mic.

The research adds to the debate, Gaddis said, over whether black-white gaps in income stem from discrimination against black workers or if blacks have lower levels of so-called "human capital" (e.g., education and work experience).

"There are different values to human capital. For example, a Harvard degree is worth more than a UMass Amherst degree," Gaddis said. "But there is also racial discrimination in the labor market. For instance, black candidates from Harvard get callbacks at lower rates than white candidates from Harvard. In other words, both sides of the debate are correct in this case."

Playing the name game: Employers might be guessing a person's race based on their name and factoring that into their hiring decisions. "I think that many employers are likely unaware of how their decision-making process leads to racial inequality," Gaddis said. "I hope that at least some of them might see this research and think more carefully about how they could anonymize the process."

To test out the name theory, Gaddis spent nine months creating profiles for more than 1,000 fake applicants to submit online applications. He used data from the New York State Department of Health to select the most common names for children born to black or white mothers and from three tiers of education (lower, middle and upper class).

Gaddis selected 12 names: Jalen, Lamar and DaQuan for black males; Nia, Ebony and Shanice for black females; Caleb, Charlie and Ronny for white males; and Aubrey, Erica and Lesly for white females.

The fake applicants either attended the highly selective Harvard, Stanford or Duke, while others attended less selective schools like UMass-Amherst, University of California, Riverside and the University of North Carolina Greensboro.

What happened: In general, attending a top university meant greater chances of hearing back from an employer. In 13 cases the potential employers sent internal messages with other employees expressing excitement about a particular candidate. In five of the cases, the correspondence referenced a candidates institution with messages like, "OK, she had me at Stanford. Eat our dust [competitor] or "Harvard guy wants to work for us!"

However, the opportunity scale isn't balanced. White job applicants with top university degrees had a response rate of almost 18%. By comparison, black candidates had a response rate of  about 13%. The trend was similar for fake applicants from less selective schools. The white applicants had an 11% response rate while less than 7% of the black candidates heard back.

What's more, black candidates may get penalized in the labor market twice. "Not only are they less likely to receive a response than white candidates, that the jobs that are potentially available to them are listed with about a 10% lower starting salary ranges," Gaddis wrote in the paper.

Race versus education: Education is supposedly the key to success, but race might in some cases make it difficult to use that key.

"I worry that people might say this study shows that education does not pay off for young black students in the United States. That's simply not true," Gaddis said.

While getting an education is certainly a societal boost, it may be weighed down by stereotypes that follow race. And in that way, it might not be working as effectively as it could to bridge diversity gaps in the workplace. Gaddis points out that correcting this process at the level of hiring might be as easy as  removing names from resumes and applications in advance and using a numerical ID system.  

One obvious shortcoming of the study, as the researcher noted, is the inability to follow through with the complete job application process. Perhaps candidates would have been turned down after a face-to-face meeting.

"I hope that people understand that racial inequality is not just a thing of the past," Gaddis said. "It may not be as severe, consistent, or open as it was 50 years ago, but we still have a long way to go in our society."