On Campus

Where to go for university - and does it matter?

Deciding where to get your Master's can be a tricky thing. Here are some tips

Got a question this week.

I am a mature student just finishing my first year of studies. Looking to my future, I will complete a Masters degree in Economics. My question to you is, does it really matter where I obtain my degree?

There were more details in the full question, but the fellow in this case has some fairly compelling reasons to stay one place. He also has concerns about the reputation and marketability of the degree. And he has some fairly significant professional experience. My answer is going to hinge significantly on this last point.

Reputation, employment prospects, all the intangible aspects of a degree at one institution vs. a degree at another … frankly, I would never pretend to be in a position to evaluate all of these things accurately. But I do feel the frustration from students and applicants as they realize they aren’t in a position to do that either. The fellow who wrote in this week put is as well as I possibly could, so I’ll just quote him.

Universities spend a lot of money on marketing, luring prospective students to their campuses. They post succession rates, average salary after the program, jobsites of recent graduates, etc. This leads the reader to believe that one school degree is better than another, depending on where the student wants to work, or how much money he wants to make. All of these statistics can be grossly misleading.

Hell yeah. That’s the problem boiled down perfectly to the essentials. This sort of data is very misleading. Even when the data is collected by third parties in a comparative environment it still relies, of necessity, on the self-reported success of students. And then it’s very rarely collected by third parties at all. When you get this data it’s almost certainly presented by the school itself, and all the inevitable problems of bias and self-interest creep in. It’s probably safe to assume that no reputable school is going to outright lie to you, but there are a lot of ways to create a false impression without actually lying.

For the sake of the guy who actually wrote in, I’ll sidestep this problem entirely and give him my advice for his particular situation. When you’ve got a student who has significant employment experience already, and other sorts of qualifications to stand on, the intangible benefits of one institution over another are much less significant. Even grades become less significant. The classic example is the business executive who needs a MBA to take the next step in her career. Getting the degree may be critical. But where it comes from and what sorts of grades she actually receives are less important.

So my advice in this case is to pursue education wherever it makes the most sense for other reasons. You can absolutely afford to prioritize family, convenience, cost, and other factors. What’s going to stand out on your CV isn’t where you went to school but rather all the other things you’ve done in the past. The simple fact that you went back to school as a mature student will be interesting as well. No one is going to question why you went to a “weaker” program (if that’s even true) at this stage in your life.

For other students my opinion on this subject is more complicated, and I have no easy answers. When a student is straight out of high school, or straight out of undergrad in the case of professional and graduate programs, the intangibles and the reputation of the school and the program may play an important role in career opportunities. That isn’t because it’s necessarily fair, but rather because there just isn’t much else to distinguish one student from the next student. So allowing that in a case like this the intangibles do matter, how is a student to decide?

This is going to be so case-specific I can only give general guidelines. Do the research and look at the information that is available. Look at it critically, as the gentleman writing in this week has clearly done. Take advantage of whatever opportunity you have to interact with current students and get the real story. Look at what they tell you critically as well. Think about where you really want to go with your career and which program is better positioned to get you there.

And when it really comes down to it, even if it costs a bit more or means you end up leaving some friends behind or moving to a place you’d rather not live, it may be worth going to a program that has reputation where it matters to you. Again, that’s if (and a big if) you are going to rely significantly on your degree to distinguish you on the employment market. Think about yourself as employers inevitably must, and consider what they’ll be looking at when it comes time to find a job. You may know you’re a great potential employee, but it’s hard to stand out at the interview process unless you have something to stand on – and in fact you may not even get to the interview unless you can grab some attention on paper.

So two scenarios. For the guy who actually wrote in this week, and other mature and “out of the box” students, do whatever makes the best sense for other reasons. For more conventional students, you can’t escape worrying about these factors. I know it’s hard to evaluate one program against another, but it’s worth a genuine effort. Down the road, it may indeed make all the difference.

Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even those I don’t address here will still receive replies.

Looking for more?

Get the best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.