The core schools strategy: What it is and why it doesn’t work

Recruiting from core schools may be common, but it's not the smartest move. Here’s why.

Imagine that the low gas warning light on your car’s dashboard just came on. You know it won’t be long before you’re running on empty, but you have a problem: you’ve historically always chosen to only fill up your tank at two specific gas stations.

You continue driving down the road as you watch your fuel level dwindle, passing perfectly suitable fill-up spots along the way. They’re accessible. They have exactly what you’re looking for. For all you know, their gas might even be cheaper or better. But you don’t stop because they aren’t on your list of preferred stations.

Does that sound a little irrational? Somewhat silly? Like a surefire way to find yourself out of gas on the side of the road? You’re right. And yet, it’s what so many employers end up doing when they invest heavily in a “core schools” strategy for filling their hiring pipeline.

A closer look at the core schools strategy

What is a core schools strategy? It’s all right there in the name: whether intentional or not, it’s an antiquated strategy where organizations invest time, money, and energy into recruiting talent from only a handful of colleges and universities (typically less than 20).

The schools that top the core schools list vary from organization to organization, but often, they’re based on completely trivial factors such as convenience, perceived prestige, or even the alma maters of a company’s executive leadership team. 

You might hear “core schools” and “target schools” used interchangeably. But, as Harvard Business Review explains, there’s a slight difference between the two:

  • Core schools: Three to five educational institutions where companies get the majority of their hires
  • Target schools: Five to 15 more schools where companies spend some time recruiting but don’t dedicate nearly as much focus and attention as they do at core schools

Looking for candidates exclusively from select schools has been a common hiring practice for organizations that need an efficient and seemingly effective way to sort through an overwhelming talent pool. But, this approach won’t help companies build the strongest, most diverse candidate pipeline for their internships and entry level roles.

The pitfalls of zoning in on a core schools strategy

We’ve always recruited at these schools. We’ve hired some of our best employees there. Leadership feels strongly that these are the right schools for our hiring needs. We receive thousands of applications, so we need some quick way to filter through them.

It’s not hard to come up with justifications for why the core schools approach deserves a permanent spot in your recruiting strategy. But, we want to challenge you to think differently. Should the school that’s listed on a candidate’s degree carry that much weight? Here are a few reasons you might want to reconsider.

You’re missing out on qualified candidates

Let’s start with the most obvious disadvantage first: by limiting your hiring efforts to only a few schools, you risk missing out on top-notch, qualified applicants that could make a big difference at your organization. Since talent is equally distributed across the country, the institution a candidate attends doesn’t come close to telling their full story. 

Employers are better off looking at qualifications that will actually help a person make an impact in their role (and in your organization)—qualifications such as knowledge, skills, past experience, interests, credentials, and their major or technical training.

“With the [core schools] and traditional recruiting model, you’re limited to students who are already interested in your brand and are unable to seek out students with backgrounds who better fit the brand’s talent needs.”

Bryan Kaminski, Former Director of Talent Acquisition: Talent Programs at Under Armour

You’re building a homogeneous team

Perhaps you’ve already taken steps to remove bias from parts of your hiring process—such as ensuring that you have a diverse hiring panel, recognizing bias, standardizing interviews, or even removing candidates’ names from their applications.

But if core schools are still playing a big role in your evaluation criteria, you’re not doing everything you can. While elite schools are stepping up efforts to encourage and accept applications from more diverse students, there’s still a ways to go. With the higher cost of tuition and legacy preferences, these institutions are still set up to favor affluent students. 

“Oh, but we focus on recruiting at HBCUs or other institutions with underrepresented populations,” you might be thinking now. Consider this: only about a quarter of all Black graduates with bachelor’s degrees in STEM attend an HBCU. You’ll find 73% of these students at other four-year universities, community colleges, bootcamps, and trade schools—places where you might not be actively recruiting.

To build a more diverse hiring pipeline, employers need to look outside the schools they’ve always defaulted to and dedicate more effort and attention to places that have the varied, qualified talent they actually want.

You’re limiting your perspective

Diversity isn’t about public relations, lip service, and satisfying quotas. It’s about building a team filled with differing backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives.

Diversity in thought can help an organization thrive. In fact, Harvard Business Review reports that, when compared with teams of cognitively similar people, diverse teams are able to solve problems faster. 

How many assorted outlooks and viewpoints can you expect to achieve if everybody is coming to your organization with the exact same college experience? That’s not to say that different people can’t have different realities at the same educational institution. However, it does limit the breadth of personal experience that they can lean on. 

After all, will you have more success getting assorted ideas and opinions from a team of engineers that all went to MIT and were taught by the same instructors? Or, will you get more diverse suggestions from one engineer who went to MIT, one who went to a technical college, and one who is self-taught through bootcamps and hands-on courses?

Consider your specific hiring needs over prestige

“Well, we’ve always recruited here,” is a common sentiment. On the flip side, have you looked at the data to determine if your core schools are the best match for your current hiring needs—or if you simply keep returning because it’s convenient, comfortable, and predictable? 

Like any organization, your hiring needs are constantly evolving, which means the schools you need to recruit from can and should shift as well.

Mindy Nennig at Workday shares how her team broke away from the core schools strategy to source candidates from different backgrounds across the US.

Handshake makes this process easy for employers who can now receive new partner school recommendations based on their open job preferences. That means any employer using Handshake can easily identify new schools they’re not currently connected to that have the most qualified candidates according to their job criteria. 

With School Recommendations, employers can receive recommendations based on job preferences like GPA, major, school year, graduation date, and work authorization within 250 miles of their job location.

School Recommendations give you insight into which schools you should connect with based on the number of students that fit your job location and preferences.

Using School Recommendations, you can customize the recommendations you see based on the job preferences you set and job location. Login and post a job to start receiving new School Recommendations, now available to all employers using Handshake Premium and Core.

Customize your School Recommendations based on your job’s location and preferences.

Use data to inform your partner schools strategy

Where is the data that says your current core schools are the most effective to meet your organization’s hiring goals? In the shift to virtual recruiting, how are you prioritizing which schools to invest in, regardless of where they’re located? In order to unlock access and equity, sourcing from a wide range of schools is key, and virtual recruiting makes that easy. Handshake’s analytics can shed light on which schools are funneling the right candidates for your pipeline, and which are not.

That’s where Handshake Premium’s School Explorer comes in.

With School Explorer, Handshake Premium employer partners can unlock a more diverse talent pool by identifying new institutions to connect with based on student skills, location preferences, student organization membership, extracurriculars, qualifications, and more. Employers can use School Explorer to identify new schools with a large population of students who may have worked at specific companies or held specific jobs.

Here’s how this works. Let’s say you want more women applicants for a role on your finance team. With School Explorer, you can identify women’s colleges and institutions with strong finance programs and a large female-identifying student body and find schools with a large number of candidates based on student groups like women-focused business associations and past job titles like Junior Accountant.

Keep in mind that these schools might be different from the ones you’d look at when hiring for other teams, like engineering, legal, or sales.

To attract a broader range of talent, Handshake Premium partner, PayPal, knew that they needed to move beyond a core schools approach. As a result of expanding their partner schools through Handshake’s network of 1,400+ higher education institutions, PayPal increased awareness of their brand and jobs, resulting in a 10-12x increase in applications from Asian, Black and Latine candidates year over year.

A transformed schools strategy led to a massive increase in pipeline diversity. You can nimbly experiment with different mixes of school partnerships and use Handshake data to back your approach. As you think about your overall early talent recruiting strategy, use School Explorer to inform how you adjust your partner school strategy to fit your evolving goals, and ultimately, find talent that even your competitors are missing out on.

Learn more about Handshake Premium’s School Explorer.

Engage with career centers, find an executive sponsor

To get a leg up with the candidates you’re targeting, reach out to the career centers at the schools you are recruiting from. Ask them what’s missing from their programming, and how you can add value to their students. The competition for your brand and messaging to stand out to students may be less fierce if you are partnering with a school and its students more intentionally.

To tilt the balance of your early talent recruiting strategy toward equity, you’ll also need internal buy-in and alignment to break through perceptions around a school-agnostic approach and vocalize your strategy with upper management. One way that Handshake Premium partner, Kiewit, successfully expanded beyond recruiting from core schools was that their early talent program leaders identified an executive sponsor to back them up on its efficacy and help disseminate impact.

Widen your reach and fill your tank hiring tank

When you step back and think about it, the school an applicant attended is a total immaterial fact on which to base hiring decisions. 

High-quality candidates can come from elite universities, technical schools, community colleges, and everywhere in between. So, why do so many organizations use only a handful of core schools as part of their evaluation and hiring process?

Sure, it might seem like an efficient use of your resources. But in reality, a core schools approach immediately eliminates a large portion of potentially impressive and qualified candidates, and sabotages your efforts to build a truly diverse team. 

Employers need to look beyond the prestige or reputation of an educational institution in favor of a more school-agnostic approach. Broadening your reach in this way will open up opportunities for students to engage with your brand, and unlock access and equity to students anywhere and everywhere.

To put this into practice, check out the free Pathfinders course, “Expanding your talent pool on Handshake.”