How good is education at predicting job performance?
Updated: Jan 1
We’ve been told a good education leads to a good job, but does a good education lead to a good employee?
Many of us grew up hearing, “You need to go to college to get a good job.” We all know things have changed—a lot. But let’s turn this idea around. How important is education to an employer? That is, does one’s education predict job performance? The ugly truth for those that shell out $70k per year for top schools, as well as for many employers who tend to emphasize education, is…not very well. According to an authoritative academic publication called The Validity and Utility of Selection Methods in Personnel Psychology. Education has almost no correlation with job performance. In fact, education provides only 1% predictive ability. That’s it – 1%.
Whether a resume says Yale, Oxford, or a community college, it tells us little about how an individual will perform on the job. This is not to suggest that skills are not acquired or specific knowledge not attained from an education. They are. However, there’s an assumption that education provides the training and experience for job performance. It does not. In fact, the “amount of education has even lower validity for predicting job performance” than the popular method of looking at a candidate’s actual training and experience, which is a mere 1.1% (Schmidt). In short, a good education does not equate to a good employee.
Interestingly, when we do the standard six-second resume scan, a common area of focus is education. See the heat map image below, which tracks the eye movements of hiring managers and recruiters when reviewing a resume (source Business Insider).
Notice the heavy emphasis on education at the bottom of this heat map under the “Education” section. The fact that our eyes tend to focus in on education speaks to our tendency (our belief) that one’s education is helpful in determining job performance. Again, education only has 1% predictive ability in terms of work performance.
Obviously, we assume there is a correlation between education and work, i.e., good education = good work. The reality is that this belief is more cultural conditioning than anything else. We’ve been told that if a candidate attended and graduated from an accredited institution, then they’ll perform well.
It’s common knowledge that education has been up against the ropes for some time. It has gotten to the point that many are seeking alternatives and citing its failures on a number of fronts. Marketing guru, Seth Godin, argues that we are “wasting a huge amount of time and money, bankrupting our children, hindering progress and stultifying growth, all at the same time.” And Sir Ken Robinson’s Ted Talk asks, “Do Schools Kill Creativity?” (Spoiler: the answer is “yes” but the video is worth watching).
Yet, predicting job performance is critical. It’s what we attempt to do every time we hire someone. When we’re reading resumes, we’re screening for someone we think will be successful based on what their experience is. We are literally assessing a candidate (in our heads) based on what they’ve written. But instead of assuming education provides workplace performance, it’s important to look a little deeper and ask some questions.
For example, why did the individual get into and do well in a certain school? Do they have a natural inclination to think on their feet? Do they absorb new information quickly? Are they able to apply what they’ve learned and adapt it on the fly? If so, education didn’t provide this; education simply revealed these abilities in the form of grades and a diploma.
Rather than adhere to the false assumption that education is a great predictor of job performance, we can get a much clearer idea about candidate’s’ likelihood to excel in their jobs with what psychologists call “General Cognitive Ability” (CGA). It’s also known simply as “g”. In other words, cognitive ability can be measured, and thus it can provide predictive ability. In fact, “g” is considered by many IO psychologists to be the single best predictor of job performance.
When cognitive ability is combined with a behavioral assessment and a structured interview the predictive ability of a candidate’s job performance soars to 58%! This is a big jump from the 1% that we get from education!
In summary, the very thing many hiring manager focus on the most—education—is a terrible predictor of success. A much smarter—dare I say, more educated—way of evaluating candidates is assessing their behaviors and cognitive ability.
Source: Schmidt, Frank L. and Oh, In‐Sue and Shaffer, Jonathan A., The Validity and Utility of Selection Methods in Personnel Psychology: Practical and Theoretical Implications of 100 Years of Research Findings (October 17, 2016). Fox School of Business Research Paper. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2853669
Sir Ken Robinson: https://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity