Main image of article More Tech Employers Want the 'Right' College Degree

Tech employers are becoming much more particular about a candidate's education, often requiring degrees from top-flight schools and high GPAs. “Employers are looking for the best of the best,” says Sheila Robinson, a technical recruiter at Atlanta staffing firm Agile. This doesn't mean job seekers who aren't graduates of elite schools can't apply to such companies. But it does mean they'll have to focus on demonstrating they've got the same characteristics of the those with company's preferred background. Candidates without degrees from elite schools can focus on ways to demonstrate the assets employers seek from those top-flight candidates—or launch their own startups, as Gates and Zuckerberg did.

Employer Preferences

In Atlanta, degrees from state universities or the area's small colleges are more highly valued than those from online schools and technical colleges such as DeVry or ITT Tech. “People can go get a gaming certificate or something like that, but at the end of the day, a computer science degree from a state school or a technology institute like MIT will carry a lot more weight,” Robinson says. Employers know that at schools like Georgia Tech, students get internships or do project work. And despite the dramatic rise in online classes, employers still think that people who go to online schools don’t get that same level of experience with hands-on development. Bill Scott, senior director of user interface engineering at PayPal, says he’s open to hiring candidates who don’t have degrees — but they must have projects to demonstrate their skills.

Entrepreneurial Spirit

“If I’m looking for someone straight out of college, I’m looking for someone with some mix of human-computer interaction and an engineering discipline or computer science discipline. And the schools that foster a startup mindset. Folks from Georgia Tech, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford are good candidates for those skills,” Scott says. Indeed, a recent survey focused on the entrepreneurial impact of Stanford alums found that if they were their own country, they’d be the world’s 10th-largest economy, according to Scott says that sometimes employers focus on hiring from a certain school simply because that’s where they went and have their biggest network of contacts. At the same time, some startups and high-growth companies have become laser-focused on candidates’ alma maters since their exit strategy is "acqu-hire," according to David Chie, chief operating officer at Palo Alto Staffing Services. That means the founders want a bigger player to buy them out and take them on, as well as their staffs. “If you’re thinking about exiting with the most money, what’s the most attractive thing here? It’s the talent," Chie says. "So the startups have gotten very picky. They only want Stanford grads or Harvard grads or MIT grads.”

'Soft skills,' Too

Candidates for roles such as business analyst, project manager and statistician almost certainly will be required to have a degree. Even if a job listing says “degree preferred, but not required,” those with more education will be interviewed first. Brent Hamilton, senior resource manager at Signature Consultants in Charlotte, N.C., says employers believe they’re gaining more than tech skills by hiring candidates from top-flight schools. The thinking is "the better the school, the better the chance that those people have better people skills and better written and verbal communication skills, he says. "Those candidates had to use written and verbal communication skills to be accepted there. But I always try to sell around that to the client when you have a client who has a history of accomplishments and good references.”