Questioning The Value Of A College Degree – Pandemic Hiring Lesson #7

Note: This “think piece” is designed to stimulate your thinking around the predictive value of a college degree.

Seeing college students do dumb things during the pandemic should make employers/parents question student decision-making? And the value of their degrees! Think about it, the same students that recklessly congregate at gatherings and that refuse to wear masks may soon be making decisions for your company. In my view, this reckless behavior should make hiring managers extremely anxious to the point where they stop assuming that having a college degree boosts a new hire’s long-term on-the-job performance. As a business school professor for over four decades, I have found the data clearly shows that it’s a mistake to assume that recent college grads have the skills needed to perform on the job.  Many show by their actual behavior that they do not. It is becoming essential that you stop preferring/requiring a college degree. Instead assess the needed skills in each candidate, regardless of whether they have a degree or not. As an added benefit deemphasizing college degrees will directly increase diversity.

Revelation – College Degrees Do Not Predict On-The-Job Performance

Let’s be crystal clear. I’m not saying avoid hiring college grads, but what I am saying is never assume that individual degreed candidates have learned anything related to work performance while they were in college. Yes, college students may be taking classes in science, cause and effect, and decision-making but in too many cases, those classes don’t appear to have impacted their actual behavior. Rather than easily adapting to a world of rapid change, many of these snowflakes have unilaterally decided that “you got to live your life” regardless of the consequences. This selfishness and bad decision-making make them bad citizens and bad new hires. Parents, but especially employers should be worried to the point where they take the time to look at the data on how well college degrees predict job performance.

For a moment please put aside your emotions and your assumptions and let’s look at the facts. The world’s most data-driven HR function, Google, found no relationship between having a college degree, grades, or the school attended with how those new-hires performed long-term in their jobs. In fact, currently, a significant percentage of Google employees have never even attended college at all. Facebook also found a zero correlation between alma mater and performance. Academics have also only found a minuscule impact, which is that education provides only 1% predictive ability (just ahead of handwriting analysis). And, of course, there are numerous successful CEOs (including Jobs, Zuckerberg, and Gates) that have recently demonstrated that you can be wildly successful in business without ever graduating from college.

Additional Degree Related Factors To Consider

Before you assume that a college degree predicts future job performance, consider these factors.

  • Almost all recruiting is not data-based or scientific.  Unless you are one of the rare firms that utilize data-based recruiting like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Sodexo. Your hiring managers and recruiters likely have no data reminding them of the low predictive value of college degrees. Most hiring managers and recruiters simply won’t change until they are confronted with the type of performance data available at Google and Facebook.
  • Recruiters and hiring managers have a hard to break history of focusing on education. A great deal of the hiring bias in favor of those with college degrees comes from hiring managers who themselves have almost always gone to college. So, they have maintained their personal preference, even though colleges have changed dramatically since they attended. We also know that when reviewing resumes, recruiters disproportionately spend a large percentage of their time on education. We know that because TheLadders used a scientific technique called “eye tracking” to reveal that recruiters focus on education.

Employers often use the last person to hold a post as a benchmark for the type of candidate they’re looking for… and this perpetuates continuing to require a degree.

  • Requiring a college degree is an unconscious bias with a negative impact on diversity. Minority applicants and those from less fortunate economic backgrounds are less likely to have a college degree. Requiring or giving preference to having a degree is another form of unconscious bias and a diversity killer. If you go further and give preference to degrees from “elite schools”, you are unwittingly using the universities already biased selection process to unnecessarily limit your pool of diverse candidates. If you’re looking for diversity to improve your business results, it’s a huge mistake to ignore or give less weight to candidates with degrees from historically black colleges and universities (HBCU).
  • Requiring a college degree unnecessarily reduces your recruiting pool.  It’s ingrained for hiring managers to automatically place “a college degree” in the job requirements. Even though they fail to specify which one (any degree) and how recent it must be. Unfortunately, that degree requirement unnecessarily reduces the size of your overall recruiting pool without adding any quality.  You will find that there is less competition for those that haven’t completed a degree. Also, these non-degreed individuals may stay longer where they feel appreciated.
  • Don’t assume that their college major predicts anything.  Hiring managers have a distinct preference for certain narrow majors. However, there is ample evidence that candidates can learn the same required skills within many other majors or outside of the University. In a similar light, it’s probably a mistake to give any preference in a business job to someone with a degree in 18th-century French history. Or, to someone desiring to work in a fast-changing field that obtained their degree 10 years ago.
  • Look at who succeeds in professional sports.   Do not assume that the best go to the best schools.  Even big-name college sports programs that are laser-focused on developing capabilities often miss superstars. For example,  if you look at professional All-Stars or championship-winning teams, you will invariably find that many of the top-performing professional players did not attend “big-name” sports universities. Including Steph Curry, Patrick Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, and Jerry Rice. Of course, don’t forget LeBron James who performed pretty well on the court and in business without any college experience or a degree.
  • With remote University education, the lines blur.  As a larger percentage of University learning becomes remote, the lines between simply learning online and learning something that technically qualifies for college degree will continue to blur. Most managers will eventually realize that in the future, their best employees will continue to learn on their own, without having to formally attend college. Using non-university tools like LinkedIn learning, YouTube, and the Kahn Academy.
  • Grads are not even better citizens.  Some have argued the college shouldn’t do more than simply make you a better citizen. However, when you historically look at their voting record, military enlistments, or the jury service records of recent grads; you will often find that in practice, college grads are often not particularly good citizens either.

All that a degree predicts for sure is that you are at least four years older and much poorer.

Action steps to reduce the bias for college degrees

If you want to improve your hiring process, start by assuming that having a college degree is just another type of stereotype. For example, you might assume that completing a degree reflects perseverance or initiative. Where it may only mean that the candidate had a strong financial and encouraging support team behind them. Colleges of course make no attempt to assess your skills or what you’ve learned at the end. At the undergraduate level, there is no final capstone assessment to verify the quality of the output. Unfortunately, I can assure you that receiving an undergraduate degree really only tells you that the student completed the right number of classes. Some action steps to consider include:

  • Start by not requiring a college degree – unless a legal requirement or hard data is requiring it. Simply make it a standard practice not to allow or give preference to a degree in your job postings. Instead, tell the candidates that they will be assessed in specific skill and knowledge areas.
  • Don’t make any assumptions, directly assess their capabilities – rather than assuming that a degree provided the necessary capabilities. Whether they have a degree or not, instead assess those required capabilities using problems and scenarios that they will face on the specific job. Specifically assess their ability to solve problems, to learn, and to make the decisions that they will face during the first month on the job.
  • Block out education – there is now ghosting software available that will make it impossible for a reviewer to ever see a candidate’s education or grades on their resume. And, in cases where you feel that you must use education as a deciding factor, wait until the very end of your decision process to utilize it when choosing between the two final candidates.
  • Conduct a split sample – the best utilizes this scientific approach. Start by identifying a job where performance is already quantifiably measured and where there is a high volume of hiring (i.e., sales or customer service). Then hire for half of the open positions using a candidate’s college education as a decision factor. And with the other half, take steps to ensure that education is never brought up or even seen. Then, only after those hired based on their education perform measurably better on the job better should you continue to use degrees as a hiring criteria.

Why Doesn’t College Change Their Behavior

That’s a great question but one that is too big for this article. However, here are some quick possibilities. One obvious reason is grade inflation, where almost everyone gets a good grade, so there is less emphasis on retaining learning. Also, because students can now take many classes for credit / no credit. There is little real fear of failing, so students routinely put in only a minimal effort in these classes. Another contributing reason is the increasingly common University goal of providing “a safe learning environment.” Where even the dumbest proposals or ideas go unchallenged by faculty to encourage limitless thinking. Unfortunately, this doesn’t prepare students for the real world. Where there are of course many limits and factual realities that restrict decisions and ideas in the business world. The fourth major reason is the courses that students select. Students are now given a great amount of freedom to take an extremely wide array of classes. Unfortunately, it means that they too often take the easiest ones (to protect their GPA) or the classes that best fit their schedule. And finally, with weak University counseling and no external mentor, students seldom take or focus on the few practical courses that actually build the practical skill sets that they will need for the job.

Final Thoughts

Because of the recession and its limits on hiring, it’s now critical that every new hire be a top performer. You can ensure that happens, while at the same time increasing your diversity percentages. If you can convince your hiring managers to stop using this antiquated assumption about the predictive value of college degrees. Education has changed and students have changed, and probably not in the right direction for the benefit of hiring managers.

Author’s Note: Please pass this article around in your team and network. And, if it stimulated your thinking and provided actionable tips, also please take a minute to follow and/or connect with Dr. Sullivan on LinkedIn.

© Dr. John Sullivan 8/24/20 for the DJS Aggressive Recruiting newsletter

About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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