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How good is education at predicting job performance?

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Many of us grew up hearing, “You need to go to college to get a good job.” So how important is education to employers? In other words, does education predict job performance?

According to The Validity and Utility of Selection Methods in Personnel Psychology: Practical and Theoretical Implications of 100 Years of Research Findings, education has almost no correlation with job performance. In fact, education provides only 1% predictive ability.

Whether a resume says Yale or a community college, the school a candidate attended tells us little about how they 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 education is a worse predictor of job performance than a candidate’s actual training and experience. In short, a good education does not equal a good employee.

A good education does not equal a good employee; so why are employers so focused on it?

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.


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 on education speaks to our belief that one’s education is helpful in determining job performance.

Obviously, we assume there’s 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 if a candidate graduated from an accredited institution, 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 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 a certain school? Why did they perform so well? 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 these abilities; education simply revealed these abilities in the form of grades and a diploma.

A better way to predict candidate success

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 job with what psychologists call “General Cognitive Ability” (CGA). It’s also known simply as “g”. 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 assessments are combined with behavioral assessments and structured interviews, a company’s ability to predict a candidate’s job performance soars to 58%! This is a big jump from the 1% that we got from education.

In summary, the very thing many hiring managers focus on the most—education—is a terrible predictor of success. A much smarter way of evaluating candidates is to assess their behavioral drives and cognitive ability.

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Thad is a senior marketing director at PI.

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