America's Got Talent (and Not Just in the Ivies)

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s a powerful myth that our college admissions process has superhuman predictive powers. If you make the cut, you’re the talented 1 percent; miss it, and you’re relegated to the second tier.

I think it’s hogwash, though I’ll admit I’m biased, having spent my undergraduate years as a commuter student at the University of Houston, one of our nation’s many engines of upward mobility.

But to a remarkable degree, the reality that successful people come from a wide range of educational backgrounds hasn’t sunk in. Because of that, we’re stuck with admissions madness, the worst effects of which have been laid bare in recent weeks.

How do we break the cycle? We need a change on the demand side, starting with leadership from employers.

Admirably so, the business community is behind the national push for increased attainment of postsecondary education. Emerging jobs demand more employees with college-level skills. The business world has amplified that message and the public has heard it.

What’s been missing is the companion argument: There are more places you can get those college-level skills than conventional wisdom dictates. Elite universities are not a big part of our workforce problem — but they’re not a big part of the solution, either.  

By definition, selective institutions leave talent on the table. Admissions officers often say they could replace an entire freshman class with runner-up candidates and not diminish quality a bit. And that’s without taking into account the systems and structures that discourage working parents, minority and first-generation college students, and other talented candidates from applying in the first place.

Yes, graduates from elite colleges can become talented, standout employees. But to pretend they represent the majority of top-tier talent is shortsighted. Businesses that understand that and prioritize recruitment appropriately will gain a significant competitive advantage.

So how can businesses redefine where they see talent — and reset our national understanding in the process?

The first step is showing up. Recruiters for prestigious post-graduation jobs spend lots of time on — and lots of money at — a handful of elite college campuses.

Extensive research by Northwestern University professor Lauren Rivera into the hiring practices of top-tier investment banks, consultancies and law firms found a stunning lack of attention from those firms toward most universities.

Rivera’s interviews have revealed that it is common practice for recruiters at elite companies to keep two lists: a “core list” of three to five universities and a “target list” of five to 15 universities. One human-resources head had a blunt answer when asked how much time she spends looking at resumes submitted online from non-listed schools: “Zero.” That must change.

Second, business needs to build scalable ways to prove talent. Smart people will disagree about the predictive power of standardized testing. But for a student whose school doesn’t get monthly visits from top employers, a chance to stand out and be seen as a plausible candidate for a high-demand job is a big deal.

Tools like the Collegiate Learning Assessment have proved to be a useful barometer of student learning at a number of universities. Unfortunately, the data are fiercely protected. For years, colleges have resisted efforts to create transparent learning assessments due, in part, to fear that the data would be used against them through new accountability policies.

But that reticence has meant students are graduating with no widely recognized way to prove their abilities that doesn’t rely on the reputation of the school. Business leaders need to push universities to create the kind of data-rich assessments that will help them evaluate talent.

Paper-and-pencil tests are not the only option. McKinsey and Co. is experimenting with video-game-like testing methods as a way of supplementing its interview structure. Scaling up options like this — allowing job applicants to prove they’re viable candidates before coming in for the interview — would be a game changer. 

Finally, businesses should start seeing where a candidate went to college as an integral part of the diversity discussion. It’s a given that diversity of background is essential to a modern business team. Where a candidate went to college should be viewed similarly.

I’ve had more than a few conversations with CEOs about their complaints over college — the courses, the climate, the bureaucracy. And as partners in the effort to build a broader and stronger talent pipeline, there’s only a limited amount they can personally do about some of their concerns. But business leaders can — and they must — loudly and publicly proclaim that they see good paths to good jobs from all kinds of colleges.

And then they can start hiring like they believe that.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Margaret Spellings is a senior consultant at the policy nonprofit Texas 2036. She was formerly president of the University of North Carolina System and served as secretary of education in the George W. Bush administration.

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