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by Vault Education Editors | March 31, 2009

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Years after Emily Leffler left Oberlin College, completing just two semesters there, she still found herself mentioning that she had attended the prestigious Ohio liberal-arts college, even though she eventually finished her undergraduate studies at a public university.

Ms. Leffler worried that people would make assumptions about her based on the school where she earned her degree. "Even if it was in my own head, I felt it," says Ms. Leffler, 28 years old. So she'd slip in to a conversation that she started at Oberlin. "I'd name drop," she says. "People know Oberlin. It holds weight."

For many twentysomethings, the cachet of having attended an esteemed college or university is a valuable asset. Some think the prestige factor opens doors when it comes to landing a job in competitive fields, while others rely on power of their alma maters' social networks to build friendships and career connections.

And it's for good reason, according to some career consultants. Prestigious schools typically maintain extensive alumni databases that can be precious tools for job seekers. "You have a ready-made list of contacts," says Kate Wendleton, president of www.fiveoclockclub.com, a career-coaching firm in New York. While the benefits are there for a select few, "having gone to a prestigious school gives you such an edge in a job search. It's really unfair" for others who didn't go to elite schools, she says.

But how much does a brand name really matter?

Research suggests that attending a prestigious school doesn't make a person more likely to be successful professionally (as measured by income). Princeton University economist Alan Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale of the Andrew Mellon Foundation unraveled some myths about the importance of brand-name degrees in a 1999 study when they found that students who were accepted to elite universities but chose instead to attend less-selective schools did as well in adult life as their peers who'd attended top-tier institutions. In other words, it is the quality of the students selected for admission to elite schools, not what happens within the ivied walls, that made the difference.

Perceived as Golden

Even if research shows that going to a school with a lot cachet doesn't translate to more cash upon graduation, cachet, apparently, has a value all its own.

Matt Schneiderman, a 28-year-old senior editor at a national men's magazine in New York, agrees. He attended Haverford College, a highly selective, yet relatively small liberal-arts college in Pennsylvania. He thinks people who attended elite schools tend to talk too much about their alma maters. "With most people you don't know where they went to school," he says. "But you always seem to know who went to an Ivy League."

Of course, it's not just Ivies that have distinction. In California, going to a college in the University of California system, as opposed to a California State University school, is what counts, says Carmen Rojas, 27, who attended the University of California at Santa Cruz as an undergraduate and is currently in the graduate program at Berkeley. "If you're in the UC system, you're A-OK," Ms. Rojas says.

Some twentysomethings like Sheila Wienek take a different tack.

Ms. Wienek, who graduated from Princeton University in 1999 and now runs a marine biology lab in Los Angeles, says she often is reluctant to tell people where she went to college. "It can sound pretentious," she says. So instead she tends to say vaguely that she attended school in the Northeast unless asked directly.

Still, the 27-year-old acknowledges that it can work the other way, if it turns out the person she is talking to attended a similarly prestigious school. "We have something in common," she says.

"My dad wanted me to go to a school with name recognition, where everybody knows it and knows it means that you are smart," Ms. Wienek says. That, in part, was because her father didn't have the opportunity to attend an elite school himself. "Both of my parents were the first in their families to go to college, and they went to local state schools in Massachusetts," Ms. Wienek says.

What Counts

In some career fields, like law, it's typical that top-tier firms may only want to hire graduates from top-tier schools, says Emory Mulling, president of the Mulling Companies, an outplacement and career-consulting firm in Atlanta. And while it also may be true that some companies prefer to hire only Wharton School or Harvard M.B.A.s, those firms represent a small minority of all the jobs out there.

But, ultimately, for any company or career, "it's about how hard you are willing to work, not sitting back on your laurels" or name-dropping your school, says Mr. Mulling. "If you have seen some Ivy Leaguers who didn't do a great job, you start to focus on prestigious track records, not prestigious schools."

Take Matt Bonds. He received a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Georgia in Athens and is finishing up a second Ph.D. in ecology. The 28-year-old knows his alma mater may not rank on the list of most-elite graduate schools in the country, even though its ecology program is highly regarded.

But he thinks that we will be in a good position to compete with graduates of schools like Harvard University and the University of Chicago for academic jobs when he is finished. "I feel like it's publications that count," he said, noting that he had published a paper co-written with one of his undergraduate professors at Francis Marion University, a small school in South Carolina. That was an opportunity he probably wouldn't have had if he had attended at a bigger school, he says.

Besides, as a graduate student, he came close to transferring to the prestigious University of Chicago when his adviser in Georgia was offered a job there and suggested that Mr. Bonds follow him.

"At first I got excited, and then I realized I wasn't interested," he says after recognizing he would be doing the same work in Chicago.

But Mr. Bonds does acknowledge that the social power of a brand-name school was tempting. "If you tell someone you go to a school that's famous, that person automatically thinks you must be really intelligent," he says.

Still, when it comes down to it, how you earned your degree and what you choose to do with it make the difference.

"Bill Gates does not have a college degree -- he has a track record," says career consultant Mr. Mulling. He says going to a prestigious school matters when one is applying for a first job, but a evidence of success on the job is more important than alma mater in the long run.

As for Ms. Leffler, she has held several interesting jobs, including working as a programming director for the U.S. State Department's internal television station in Washington, D.C., since graduating from the University of Maryland in Baltimore. And she recently changed her tune on name-dropping and even dropped Oberlin from her resume.

"Once you get to your late twenties, it's about what you've done, regardless of where you went to school," she says.

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