Business Leaders Say Knowledge Trumps College Pedigree

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Business Leaders Say Knowledge Trumps College Pedigree

by Valerie J. Calderon and Preety Sidhu

American public puts more emphasis on college major and institution

WASHINGTON, D.C. — When hiring, U.S. business leaders say the amount of knowledge the candidate has in a field, as well as applied skills, are more important factors than where a candidate attended school or what their college major was.

Business leaders were asked to rank the level of importance four distinct factors have on hiring. Eighty-four percent of business leaders said the amount of knowledge a candidate has in a particular field was “very important,” followed by 79% who said applied skills were very important. These two reasons far outweighed the importance of a candidate’s college major (28%) or where the candidate received his or her college degree (9%).

These findings are from a Nov. 25-Dec. 16, 2013, telephone survey with 623 U.S. business leaders conducted by Gallup on behalf of Lumina Foundation. The sample for the business leader study is nationally representative of businesses in the United States, with minimum quotas by sales revenue. The study gauges business leaders’ perceptions of higher education in this country. The business leader poll was conducted concurrently with the third annual Gallup-Lumina Poll report on Higher Education.

American Public Perceives Importance of University and Major Differently

Reflecting on the same four factors, the American adult population broadly agrees with the opinions of business leaders in terms of the importance of knowledge and applied skills in the field. About eight in 10 U.S. adults say that knowledge and applied skills in the field are very important to managers making hiring decisions for organizations. The average American, however, rates the candidate’s college major and where the candidate received his or her degree as higher in importance than business leaders do. Nearly half of U.S. adults (47%) say the candidate’s college or university major is a very important factor to hiring managers, and 30% say where the candidate received his or her college degree is very important.


Business leaders say that the managers responsible for making hiring decisions are far less concerned with where job candidates earn their degrees, or even the type of degree itself, than they are with what knowledge and skills a candidate brings to the table. This corresponds with recent insights into how large, high-tech corporations like Google conduct their hiring. At Google, hiring managers say certain types of skills and talents are what matter most, more than a particular type of college degree or even having a college degree at all.

As opportunities to access postsecondary degrees, certificates, and credentials continue to evolve and become more accessible through innovative learning models, Americans will be able to expand and use their knowledge in the workplace more quickly and efficiently in the future. Further, there may be more emphasis on what potential employees know and their style of working, rather than on the candidate’s degree per se. Thus, while college is still important to business leaders, Americans — who tend to rate the importance of where and what type of degree was attained higher than do business leaders — need to recognize that college alone is not enough. Getting a job and achieving long-term success in one’s career may increasingly depend on demonstrating real value to employers through experience and targeted learning — and increasingly less on degrees, even if they are from prestigious universities. Higher education institutions have a tremendous opportunity to partner with businesses to bring relevant, responsive, and timely learning opportunities to workplaces in this country and worldwide.


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