Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Does education level matter?

One of the most frequent questions related personnel assessment is does education level predict job performance?

The answer to this question has big implications for setting minimum qualifications for jobs, for screening criteria, leadership development--you name it, across the spectrum of talent management.

It seems like the answer would be fairly obvious--of course more education would result in better performance. People learn good study habits, increase their writing and oral communication skills, etc. etc.

There's just one thing: the research up until now hasn't shown this assumption to be true. For example, in Schmidt & Hunter's well known 1998 study, they found a (corrected) correlation between education level and job performance of .10--the same they found for interests and two and half times less than the predictive validity of reference checks. So not good.

But maybe it was the way they conducted the study. Or maybe education level predicts differently for different types of jobs, or maybe the way you measure performance matters.

That's a lot of maybes. So it was with much anticipation that I read Ng & Feldman's meta-analysis in the most recent issue of Personnel Psychology.

The authors found nearly 300 studies and looked at several measures of performance (both task and OCB) from a variety of sources (e.g., self-ratings, supervisor ratings, objective measures).

Results? Depends on your point of view. According to the authors, "...the results of this study suggest that using education level as a screening device has quite robust validity. In many cases, then, the higher recruitment costs and wage costs that typically accompany hiring highly educated workers are justifiable."

Reading that, you might expect the correlations they found to be quite high. They weren't. The correlation with supervisory ratings was quite similar to Schmidt & Hunter's at .09. Correlations with OCB varied, but the highest was .23. One of the worst correlations was with training program performance, at -.03

So what did education level predict? The highest values were for self-rated on-the-job substance abuse (-.28), creativity ratings (.25), "objective measures" (.24),and general absenteeism (-.22).

What about moderator variables? Nothing for job tenure, organizational tenure, or managerial nature of the job. As far as job complexity, results were mixed and effects not strong.

What's worse, on three out of the six relationships studied, the relationship between education level and job performance was more positive for either men or Caucasians compared to women and minority groups, respectively.

So bottom line? We still don't have good support that education predicts job performance. Certainly it does a much worse job compared to other assessment methods like ability testing or structured interviews. This doesn't bode well for using educational attainment for minimum qualifications nor for creating eligible lists or otherwise screening using education level. It may be that education has a stronger relationship with aspects of task performance that relate to education, such as written communication, presentation, and analytical skills. It's also possible that the type and level of the degree matters (something the authors point out but didn't analyze).

Of course it may be that education level is simply too broad of a measure to accurately predict all of the aspects that go into job performance. When it comes to attracting and screening, there are simply better ways to find the right person.


Josh said...

Thanks for posting this Bryan, great summary of the article. I have always been puzzled by the low correlations for education level observed in Hunter and Schmidt, so interesting to see it reiterated by another meta-analysis.

Malcolm said...

I think this should be case by case. There is no education like real world education and if someone is applying for a position and they have ten years of good experience but maybe a 2 year community college degree that isn't worth much shouldn't be held against that person. They took a different path to get into the hot seat in front of you.