Impact Stories
March 29, 2021 – Future of Work

Separate knowledge from brand

What if university brand was no longer the dominant signal of quality for employers evaluating applicants?

Separate knowledge from brand

This Viewpoint is part of an ongoing series, “Building a brighter future: Big ideas for postsecondary education.” In this series, we ask innovators what could make a difference to learners in 2021 and beyond.     

Michael D. Smith is the J. Erik Jonsson Professor of Information Technology and Marketing at Carnegie Mellon University’s H. John Heinz III College.    


As my wife and I have watched our sons make college choices, something has become clear: For young adults, choosing a college is as much about branding as it is about learning. And 18-year-olds are very brand conscious.

In my role as a parent, the focus on institutional reputation rather than actual learning is a hard reality to face. But in my role as a social scientist, it’s not at all surprising. After all, numerous studies have shown that elite college degrees pay off in the job market. (See here and here.)

But mostly I think about this in my role as a professor who cares deeply about educational quality and student welfare. You see, because colleges and universities are acutely aware of the role brand plays in students’ decisions, they have strong incentives to spend time and effort on building that brand. This, in turn, leads to some troubling outcomes. In 2019, for example, the Wall Street Journal documented the experience of a high-school student named Jori Johnson, who was recruited by a group of elite schools, including Stanford (admissions ratio 4.3%), the University of Chicago (6.2%), Northwestern (9.1%), and Vanderbilt (9.1%). All of them later rejected her.

Why might these schools all have recruited Johnson and others like her only to reject them? Because, the Journal reports, they wanted to attract students they knew they could later reject — a trick many colleges use to improve their selectivity scores. The process works well for the colleges. But, as the Journal points out, it turns students like Johnson into “unknowing pawns” in the college reputation game.

Lots of colleges and universities in recent years have deployed this trick. In a way, I can’t blame them. They’re just playing the game according to the rules we’ve set.

I think it’s now time to change those rules.

How? By investing in systems that allow employers to evaluate applicants based on their individual skills rather than their brand affiliations. Such a goal isn’t as far-fetched as it might sound. We’ve already seen a comparable change in the role of brand in other sectors of the economy. Take the travel industry. Not so long ago, in a world of limited information, most travelers let brand names guide their decisions about where to stay: Staying at a Hilton was a safe bet versus an unknown independent hotel. But in the past decade, we’ve witnessed the emergence of services that provide travelers with all sorts of information about quality. Today, with the help of TripAdvisor or a similar service, visitors to Carnegie Mellon might confidently rely on these new data sources to choose the independent hotel “Mansions on Fifth” over a Hilton property right down the street.

What could this look like in the context of college credentials? What if university brand was no longer the dominant signal of quality for employers evaluating applicants? Consider that in 2015 the hottest data-science recruit in Silicon Valley was Gilberto Titericz, a petroleum engineer with a degree from the thirteenth-best university in Brazil. Why were tech firms interested in Titericz? It wasn’t his university brand. They were relying on a new source of data: Titericz’s high rank on Kaggle’s data-science leaderboard.

Such new data-driven credentialing systems might help everyone in higher education. If we could reliably separate knowledge from institutional brand in the hiring process, students might be able to focus what they should be focused on — gaining knowledge. And universities might be able to focus on what they should be focused on — transmitting it.

The Charles Koch Foundation partners with social entrepreneurs to drive societal progress through academic research and innovations that help all learners realize their potential. Read more about the Foundation’s support for education