One of Malcolm Gladwell’s many terrific books is David and Goliath. One of many counterintuitive inferences drawn in the book has profound implications for hiring managers, students, and parents.

If you were getting a degree in a STEM field, would you be better off going to Harvard University, or Hartwick Collect, a small liberal arts school in NY?

It’s pretty obvious, right?

Or maybe not.

In an incredibly thought provoking discussion of relative deprivation, Gladwell argues (quite persuasively) that “It’s not just how smart you are. It’s how smart you feel relative to other people in your classroom.” And it’s far easier to feel like a big fish in a small pond like Hartwick than it is to get by at Harvard.

Is he right? Let’s look at the data.

First we’ll look at the average math SAT scores for students entering Hartwick College in STEM majors, segmented into three groups: top third, middle third, and bottom third. The results are: 569, 472, and 407 respectively. So, the best students at Hartwick have average math SAT scores around 570 (out of a perfect 800).

Next, let’s map the distribution of the school’s science & engineering degrees across those three groups. The results: 55.0%, 27.1%, and 17.8%. In other words, the top group earned over half of the school’s STEM degrees. And obviously large numbers of the students who were in the bottom third dropped out of STEM majors at Hartwick. No surprise there.

How about Harvard?

Let’s do the same grouping into top, middle, and bottom third, and then look at math SAT scores for students in STEM majors. Here’s the data: 753, 674, and 581 respectively. Clearly these SAT scores are far, far better than Hartwick. The top third in Harvard nearly averaged a perfect score on the math SAT! And even the bottom third at Harvard have average SAT scores that are higher than the best students at Hartwick.

No doubt all the STEM students at Harvard should go on to earn degrees in those fields, right?

Wrong. By a long shot.

Looking at the distribution of Harvard’s STEM degrees across those three groups, here are the results: 53.4%, 31.2%, and 15.4%. Nearly identical results as Hartwick. Put another way, Harvard students in the top 3rd took over half of the STEM degrees. Meaning that huge numbers of the students not in top 3rd ended up switching out of STEM. Even though their skills far exceeded the best-of-the-best at other schools like Hartwick.

In Gladwell’s words, “The students in the bottom third of the Harvard class drop out of math and science just as much as their counterparts in upstate New York.”

The research goes on to suggest that for every 10-point decrease in the average math SAT score, the likelihood of dropping out of a science major increases by 2%.

How can that be? The Harvard students in “group 3” are better than even the best at Hartwick. Why are they dropping out of STEM degrees in droves?

Because of relative deprivation.

A student with decent math SAT scores will likely do quite well in a school like Hartwick, achieving their dream of earning a STEM degree and working in an engineering or science field. But at Harvard, even if you are very, very good at math, so is everyone else around you. So much so that you are likely relegated to average at best.

And what happens when you are no longer at or near the top – with countless others surpassing you, and in many cases blowing right past you? You begin to lose your self-esteem and question whether this field is right for you. It’s just a small step from there until you drop out of an engineering or science degree into another major like liberal arts.

In Gladwell’s words, “The smarter your peers, the dumber you feel; the dumber you feel, the more likely you are to drop out of science.” In the case of choosing Harvard over Hartwick, your chances of graduating with a science degree are reduced by nearly 40 percent!

Thought provoking indeed.

Now let’s look at what happens after graduation. Looking at the field of economics and one small measure of “success” – how often scholarly articles are accepted into prestigious publications. Surely even the middle-of-the-road Harvard PhD students should get their articles accepted into the crème-de-la-crème journals far more than their peers from “no-name” schools, right?

Wrong again.

Turns out the best students at the “lesser” schools easily beat out everyone but the very best at Harvard, MIT, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, and Stanford. As Gladwell comments, “Are you better off hiring a Big Fish from a Tiny, Tiny Pond than even a Middle-Sized Fish from a Big Pond? Absolutely.”

In my own experience as a hiring manager when I spent a lot of time interviewing prospective engineering graduates, I focused much more on their skills and talents over the school they were attending. Once hired, I found the top kids – regardless of their school – consistently performed the best work.

Indeed, the big fish from the small ponds certainly trump the small (and even middle) sized fish from the big ponds. That’s a great insight for employers looking to create greater impact.

And for anyone thinking about which school to attend, the data suggests you are far better served choosing a school where you’ll be near the top than trying to get into the best named school you can.