With their high rejection rates and celebrity faculty, the Ivy League schools are a ticket to employment euphoria—at least, that’s the image they’ve worked hard to maintain. But the recession scrambles this truism. In the best of times, a degree from Harvard or Yale will open virtually any door. When jobs are scarce, however, it can be less important to study anywhere near the top of the spectrum than to study at exactly the right place somewhere in the middle.
That’s because today, with pragmatism trumping prestige, certain campuses have become the favorite hangouts of corporate headhunters—and many of them are not the gold-plated universities you might assume. (Some of them you’ve probably never even heard of.) Though most companies are loath to reveal exactly which colleges they scour for new hires, there are ways to deduce where their efforts are targeted. “I tell parents when selecting a college, make your first stop the career center,” says Steve Canale, head recruiter at General Electric. “It’s the fastest way to tell what companies respect a degree from that school." Finding patterns in the alma maters of a company’s employees is another way to surmise where their recruiters are poking around. A Daily Beast analysis unearthed surprising evidence that suggests certain low-profile colleges are high on the lists of America’s corporate talent scouts.
The health-care job market is one of the few on the rise, with no slowdown in sight as Baby Boomers begin to retire en masse. Industry giant Hospital Corporation of America, which runs nearly 300 facilities nationwide, has had a lot of luck hiring many of its 180,000 nurses, administrators and technicians from Western Governors University—an online program that costs just $3,000 per semester. The lucrative world of Big Pharma also combs for recruits in unusual places. Pfizer, the world’s largest pharmaceutical company, trolls the campuses of Indiana University, University of Minnesota, and Michigan State for new hires. And leading biotech firm Genentech, which is responsible for discovering many of the highest grossing drugs ever, got its top execs from schools like the University of Nevada and Iowa State. “Genentech's goal is to recruit people who are the best at what they do,” says spokesman Geoffrey Tweeter. Translation: An Ivy League education isn’t their first priority.
Dreamed of working on the next Spider-Man or Iron Man franchise? Marvel Studios, which has captured several box-office records in recent years, finds most of its talent at UCLA, USC, and New York University. The comic book side of the company recruits the majority of its editors from three colleges: Parsons School of Design, School of Visual Arts, and Savannah College of Art and Design. “Most of our people have spent time working at DC Comics as well, so [recruiters at DC Comics] probably look at a lot of the same schools,” says Mary Sprowls, head of Marvel’s human-resources department.
Moreover, even if you do end up at a top-tier school, counterintuitive courses of study have forged many paths to companies seemingly unrelated to them. Google, for instance, ends up hiring a lot of linguists. And one of the trendiest programs right now is the Stanford Institute for Design, which sends grads to companies like Amazon, Disney, and red-hot design consultancy IDEO. Some even predict d-school, as it’s called, could become the next b-school.
Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University: This trio is on a list of 40 schools from which General Electric hires at least 60 percent of its newest employees. GE may sound a little old school, but it’s a solid blue-chipper that brings on about 1,000 new recruits each spring and posts them in offices all over the world. Even minus Jack Welch, GE is still renowned for cranking out some of industry’s top managers. Just be sure to choose your major early if you hope to work there. “We don’t hire a lot of liberal-arts students,” says Canale, the recruiter. “We pick kids that already know what their passion is, whether it’s finance, building jet engines or designing health-care systems.” Other schools on GE’s list include Purdue, Notre Dame, and Case Western.
Attention, future do-gooders: Working for the government is cool again. Whether it’s the FBI, Housing and Urban Development, or the Peace Corps, nearly every federal agency expects to see a hiring surge in the coming months. And you don’t need a master's from Harvard to make it in the door. Think Santa Clara University—the California school is the alma mater of potential future CIA director, Leon Panetta, and Janet Napolitano, President Obama’s the new head of Homeland Security. Or Sarah Lawrence College, where White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel studied modern dance. The commander-in-chief himself started his undergrad days at Occidental College in Los Angeles. Even Nobel Prize-winner Steven Chu, Obama’s pick for Energy secretary, didn’t make the cut among the top-25 universities. “Because of my relatively lackluster A-average in high school, I was rejected by the Ivy League schools, but was accepted at the University of Rochester,” Chu wrote in 1997. “I consoled myself that I would be an anonymous student.” Not quite.
Ultimately, experts say, where you went to college really only matters when trying to snag that first job after graduation. After that, it’s up to you. “Does it help to have gone to an Ivy League school? Sure, it opens doors,” says John Challenger, CEO of the executive-search firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “But working harder than anyone else is equally effective.” Look at Steve Jobs, who dropped out of Reed College within the first six months. (When Jobs recently took a leave of absence from Apple, he appointed chief operating officer Tim Cook, a graduate of Auburn University, to watch over things.) Bill Gates left Harvard as a junior. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg only stuck around Cambridge through sophomore year. The lesson? Clinging desperately to education’s top tier may be less efficient than immersing yourself in the comfortable middle.
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Kathleen Kingsbury is a writer based in New York. She's a contributor to Time Magazine, where she has covered business, health and education since 2005.