Alma mater may matter more in Canada than you think: New study

woman with resume

In many countries, graduates of more prestigious universities have an easier time finding employment, but it is widely believed that Canada’s more homogenous and non-hierarchical higher education system results in more equal labour market outcomes, whichever institution graduates matriculate from.

However, a new study published in the Canadian Review of Sociology from University of Toronto sociologists Ann L. Mullen, Jayne Baker, Gabriel Menard, and Brigham Walker of Tulane University is casting doubt on that assumption.

In “Does alma mater matter? An audit study of labour market outcomes of Canadian Bachelor’s Degree recipients,” the authors use an experimental audit study that compares employers’ responses to fictitious matched job applications from equally qualified bachelor’s degree recipients from three Ontario universities: Brock, Queen’s, and Waterloo.

What they found was perhaps surprising. Not all employers made a distinction between the paired applications; but when they did, Waterloo was favoured. In these cases, even though applicants had the same field of study, academic achievement and work experience, employers singled out Waterloo applicants for a response 84% more often than those from Brock. Queen’s graduates were found to be no more or less likely to be singled out for a positive response from employers than Brock or Waterloo.

Current research suggests that disparities in employment outcomes occur most commonly in countries with highly differentiated and stratified postsecondary systems. These types of systems generally maintain a variety of institutional types, varying by size, governance (public versus private) and curricular focus (applied versus liberal arts). There are typically large gaps in resources and funding across institutions.

In comparison to countries like these, Canada boasts a remarkably non-hierarchical system, with little institutional variation in resources or selectivity. Almost all institutions are publicly-governed, funding levels have historically been comparable across institutions, and tuition fees are relatively similar across the country. The system lacks a recognized elite tier, does not require standardized admissions tests, and the majority of students attend institutions within their province.

Despite this, the study indicates that employers distinguish among candidates from different Ontario universities even when job applications are otherwise equivalent in terms of field of study, work and volunteer experience, and high school and university academic achievement.

“These findings indicate that institutional affiliation matters in Canada, and suggests that graduates from some institutions fare significantly better in the labour market than their equally accomplished peers from other institutions,” said Professor Ann Mullen of the Department of Sociology at University of Toronto Scarborough. “We conclude that even in relatively non-hierarchical systems with comparatively minimal structural or resource variation, status hierarchies emerge that privilege some graduates over others.”

For more information contact David Blackwood, Research Communications Coordinator, Department of Sociology, University of Toronto Scarborough at