How important is a degree from a name brand college?
How important is getting a degree from a "brand name" college? The answer depends on both the career and the employer. In most careers, the degree itself is what is most important. Think about it: can you name the college where your physician got his/her degree? Probably not. And yet that is a profession where it is customary to put the degree on the wall. What is important is that the physician is an MD (or DO or ND or other doctor) with a qualified degree to practice medicine. Where he/she got the degree is less important. As a side note, GPA is also usually not important for physician. Would you rather be treated by a physician that graduated at the top of his/her class or the bottom? Yet few, if any, ask this question of their physician.
But there are times when where you went to school does count. Degree is an indicator of pedigree, both on where you started (brand name colleges typically means you were at or near the top of your class in high school) and where you end up (brand name colleges typically provide better education). However, that is typically the case only with the top tier employers. Does Google care where you want to college? Yes, although more so for the technical and engineering disciplines over the business disciplines. Most employers know the top MBA schools, the top Comp Sci programs, the top Engineering programs, etc. Although graduating from one of those colleges may open up more career opportunities and make it easier to get a job, it typically does not mean exclusivity. School name is somewhat less important for sciences and liberal arts, although generally brand name schools (Ivy League, etc.) will still carry additional weight.
Usually brand name companies (Google, General Electric, Coca Cola, etc.) more heavily emphasize brand name colleges. Employers recruit on campus only at certain schools. Yet the degree itself is usually more important. For example, a Computer Science major from a small no name college would typically have an advantage over an English major from Stanford for a comp sci role. Yet that same graduate would be at a disadvantage to a Comp Sci major from Stanford. Degree is primary, school is secondary.
It's also important to emphasize that "brand name" does not mean private university. While Stanford (a private university) has a world class Comp Sci program, there are also a large number of private schools (Berkeley, UT-Austin, University of Washington, University of Illinois and others) with comparably ranked programs. Public universities are typically highest ranked at the primary state university (such as University of Washington) and lower ranked at the regional state universities (such as Western Washington University), although that's not always the case. Ask about your school's ranking on a national basis for the degree program. While overall college rankings are important for general brand name recognition, what is most important is the school's ranking for specific majors.
So what do you do if you didn't get a degree from a brand name school and you are applying to a brand name company? For experienced roles, state your degree, but focus more fully on your experience as the differentiating factor in your background. For entry level roles, you may need to blaze a trail of your own if the employer is not directly recruiting at your school. Don't apologize for your degree (it's still a degree, so you're meeting the basic requirements for the role), just be prepared to doubly emphasize your experience as the way to distinguish yourself against your name brand competition.
And be ready to answer the: "Why did you choose to attend _____ for college?" question in the interview in a positive way. Don't knock your college--talk about the positive attributes and why you selected it. Don't talk about where you didn't get accepted (“State U was the only school that accepted me...”), focus on why you got a solid education at your college and how it has prepared you for your career.