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January 5, 2020

UChicago? Is That a State School?

Like it or not, it is worth investing in UChicago’s brand name from a professional perspective.

“UChicago? Isn’t that a state school?”

I’m sure we’ve all heard some variation of these words. Despite being one of the most expensive universities in the country, despite being ranked the sixth best university in the country by the U.S. News & World Report, the University of Chicago does not command the name recognition of most of its peer institutions. We seem to have a sort of instinctive disgust for people who care about name recognition: It brings us down from our ivory tower and into the world.

Name recognition, however, isn’t entirely unimportant. Indeed, although we should not strive to make UChicago more well-known for our own ego’s sake, expanding UChicago’s brand name is incredibly important from a professional perspective.

If you assembled a random collection of Americans and asked them if they had heard of the University of Chicago, many of them would say no. It is pretty clear that Harvard, Yale, and Columbia—or any of the Ivies for that matter—garner more name recognition. These schools have what you might call a strong brand awareness: They have permeated American culture to the extent that most people will have heard of them.

It might seem like I’m going to complain that UChicago isn’t more well-known and that, by God, people better faint with awe when they hear the name of the university I attend. But I’m not going to do that: I think that it’s narcissistic and frankly a little pathetic to derive validation from someone recognizing the name of where you go to college. Andy Bernard’s "I went to Cornell, ya ever heard of it?" echoes in my ears whenever someone name-drops their university. College is first and foremost about learning, about receiving an education that challenges you and broadens your horizons.

However, just because I don’t think that UChicago needs more brand recognition to boost our egos doesn’t mean I don’t think UChicago needs more brand recognition, period. In fact, in today’s Internet Age, where we often resort to making snap judgements in order to sift through masses of information, name recognition is more important than ever. For instance, we spend about 100 milliseconds deciding if someone is trustworthy. It’s hard to imagine that employers don’t exercise a similar kind of snap judgment in deciding if someone’s employable. Indeed, given that the average recruiter looks at each resume for only 7.4 seconds, it is vital that the “University of Chicago” stand out and have a positive impact in that small timeframe.

While it is true that UChicago is well-known and respected within certain professions in the U.S., such as finance and academia, the same is not necessarily true of fields like engineering, as despite offering computer science and molecular engineering majors, the University lacks an engineering school. Moreover, the University of Chicago is not well known outside the U.S.: in the U.K., where I live, I have never met anyone who has heard of it. This will affect anyone who wants to apply to a job overseas. It’s impossible to pretend that employers will not consider where you went to college, especially if you’re a recent graduate. It’s very possible that UChicago’s lack of name recognition—coupled with its infamous grade deflation—will hurt your career prospects in certain fields.

Moreover, the University of Chicago will cost about $80,000 a year starting this year. Financial aid exists, but college is still expensive. As much as some universities might pretend otherwise, college is an investment for many people, maybe one of the most valuable investments anyone will make. That first job you get is important, and with so little information for potential employers to work from, of course the school you attended is going to be a major factor.

The extent to which UChicago students’ career prospects are affected by our school’s lack of name recognition is unclear. It will certainly be harder to get a job that isn't in the U.S.: Your experience and cover letter will probably have to stand on their own. The same effect will occur to a lesser degree within the U.S., especially for those applying to jobs in fields that relatively few UChicago alumni work in, such as the arts or engineering.

Of course, once you get your first job, your degree matters less and less. Your UChicago degree is most helpful in getting your foot in the door. The effects of UChicago’s lack of name-brand recognition are thus most pernicious for recent graduates who compete against students from very well-known universities with far less grade deflation.

As tempting as it might be, I don’t believe that you should think of college as some sort of economic equation: Pay an exorbitant fee + Wait 4 years = Get loaded. Instead, college should be about learning and exploring. However, in reality the incredibly high cost of tuition forces students to consider their future earning potential. While seeking validation from someone’s reaction to where you go to college demonstrates a lack of self-esteem, worrying that your ballooning debt and relatively low GPA will not be at least in some part offset by the name brand of your university is a valid concern.

The University is, I am sure, aware of this. In fact, it has already began to undergo what some have dubbed a “Harvardization” process, marked by decreasing class sizes, the switch to Latin honors, and more, all in an effort to improve UChicago’s rank on U.S. News & World Report. Dean Boyer even said that the University was aiming for a class size similar to Harvard’s.

While this “Harvardization” of this university by the administration is a focus of criticism as it necessitates a “break” from UChicago’s quirky culture, I don’t think increasing name recognition necessarily means that UChicago has to make itself a carbon copy of Harvard. In fact, by trying to attract more international students by sending more admissions reps abroad or by increasing the number of Metcalf internships outside Chicago, UChicago can increase its brand awareness while preserving the cultural elements that make it unique.

While it is true that we shouldn’t seek to build UChicago’s brand name just for a personal ego boost, we should welcome new policies that will increase UChicago's recognition—whether that is inviting more employers to visit campus or trying to draw more international students—because they will help us get jobs later down the line. Indeed, for those of us who want to become artists or engineers or work overseas, it might very well be that our future jobs depend on it.

Andrew Farry is a second-year in the College.

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