Education, however valuable and personally meaningful, is not necessarily professional training. In many professions, a college degree doesn’t serve as a proxy for talent and skill.
Even a degree from an “elite” school.
A 2020 study pending final publication in the European Journal of International Management tracked the performance of 28,339 graduates from 294 universities around the world. Some of those institutions ranked in the top 10 of all schools; others closer to 20,000th out of 30,000. (Yep: There are a lot of colleges.)
Researchers evaluated the performance of individuals on real-life projects for corporate clients: quality of output, technical skills, leadership and teamwork, and emotional intelligence.
One result may not come as a surprise. The performance of graduates from “prestigious” institutions was on average nearly 20 percent better than for those from schools ranking 10,000 positions farther down the list.
But then there’s this: Overall performance improved by only 1.9 percent for every 1,000-position difference in global university rankings: A graduate from the number one ranked school is only likely to perform about 2 percent better than a graduate from the 1,000th-ranked school.
Even though, for example, if you got your engineering degree from MIT you could expect a starting salary of around $92,000, but if you got your engineering degree from UC San Diego, a starting salary of $67,000 is more likely.
And even though those schools are only separated by about 50 places in some rankings.
So while graduating from an “elite” school is definitely correlated with a higher starting salary, it only marginally correlates to higher job performance.
I know what you’re thinking: What about that 19 percent performance difference between a top school and a lowly ranked school?
According to the U.S. Department of Education, there are more than 4,000 colleges and universities in the U.S. That includes community colleges, for-profit colleges, schools with under 200 students–all of them. But the annual U.S. News and World Report “Best Colleges” rankings only includes about 1,400, limiting its list to regionally accredited, four-year schools.
Either way, since there’s only a 1.9 percent improvement for every 1,000 positions in the rankings, that means the average job candidate from a top 10 school will only perform around 2.5 percent “better” than a candidate from the “worst” four-year school, and less than 8 percent better than a candidate with an associate’s degree from the “worst” community college.
As the researchers write:
While it might be expected that higher-ranked institutions might provide a more stimulating academic environment, we did not document that this had an effect on graduates’ work performance … Based on our data, the institutional environment did not seem to play a role in enhancing performance.
Graduates from lower-ranked universities showed an equal level of motivation and work ethics, so this could be more affected by personality and other individual factors.
In fact, the researchers found that graduates from highly ranked universities tended to focus to an extreme degree on “instrumental tasks” (possibly because of their highly competitive academic experience?) and were more likely to ignore interpersonal relationships and team dynamics.
Again, that’s an “on average” kind of thing. Every individual is different.
But if you think graduating from an elite university is an indication of skill and talent, you might be right.
But you shouldn’t overpay for the privilege. Nor should you limit your candidate pool to graduates from “top” institutions.
What people can do is much more important than where they are from.
What matters is that they have the skills, the achievements, the work ethic, and the attitude it takes to excel. None of which is guaranteed by a college degree.
Even a degree from an “elite” university.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.