Bachelors – And No, Not The Reality Show

Why are Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees required for jobs?  That was the question I was asked the other night by one of the students in my graduate class on human resources management.  At first blush I thought it had to do with cognitive ability (and I was right), but when I don’t know something to be empirically true, my nerd hat comes on and I have to go look it up.

You’d think it would be easy to find – nope.  I spent over an hour on the web searching for any kind of information regarding the relationship between holding a college degree and job performance.  I must tell you that the Internet and I are great friends and have been since forever.  The firm I worked for at the time was a tech company and supported all employees in becoming early adopters of any kind of technology – and I thank them for that to this day.

But I digress.

Anyway, I ended up at the Department of Labor website.  In its Uniform Guidelines for Selection, the DOL says:

The degree of relationship between selection procedure scores and criterion measures should be examined and computed, using professionally acceptable statistical procedures. Generally, a selection procedure is considered related to the criterion, for the purposes of these guidelines, when the relationship between performance on the procedure and performance on the criterion measure is statistically significant at the 0.05 level of significance, which means that it is sufficiently high as to have a probability of no more than one (1) in twenty (20) to have occurred by chance….

In plain terms, what the DOL is stating is that if you want to use any kind of criteria, such as need for a college degree to determine whether or not a person is qualified for a job, that criteria must have some statistically significant positive relationship between it and successful performance on the job.

This really didn’t tell me why a college degree is required, but it was a start.  So, I did more research and ended up finding two articles that provided my answer.

The first article from The American Economic Review  entitled, “Academic Achievement and Job Performance,” reports research conducted in the early 1970s by Harvard University assistant professor David Wise on whether or not students who get good grades in college increase their earning potential over the course of their career.  They do.  But he also stated that:

The relation[ship] between college quality and grades on the one hand and job performance on the other is not only statistically significant, but is quantitatively important…it appears that the criteria used for selection [into college] is positively associated with an individual’s ability to perform job-related tasks.  The findings of the study suggest that this relationship is not simply due to non-cognitive attributes such as motivation or IQ, which may underlie academic success, but that academic achievement is an important determinant of job performance.

But, Wise also goes on to say that nonacademic attributes are just as important as academic achievement in determining job performance.

The other article I found was from 2009, published in Applied Psychology and entitled,  “Ability and Trait Complex Predictors of Academic and Job Performance: A Person–Situation Approach.”  Kanfer, Wolf and company from Georgia Institute of Technology did a study of 105 college students enrolled in a cooperative school-work program, using a bunch of different cognitive ability, knowledge, and non-ability (personality, motivation, thinking styles, decision making strategies, etc.) tests.

They found that:

Both ability and non-ability trait composites were significant predictors of academic performance, but only the non-ability trait composites predicted job performance…Specifically, non-ability trait composite measures provided incremental predictive validities for all measures of job performance, beyond that of cognitive abilities, knowledge, and grade point average.

The end result is that Wise as well as Kanfer and company say that nonacademic is just as important as academic in determining job performance.  You shouldn’t use the one without the other.

So my friends, requiring a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree for a job is only half of the picture – it demonstrates that the job needs a high level of ability in cognition – thinking, learning and processing information.

Now, what would you use to determine the other half?  Yep, you guessed it.  Once again, it’s all about behavior.


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