Does Where You Go to College Impact Your Job Future in California?

By Michael Bernick

Former California Employment Development Department Director & Milken Institute Fellow

Friday, April 11, 2014


Source: Fox & Hounds


The posting below is a variation of an essay which first appeared in Zocalo Public Square on April 9, 2014 (here), and perhaps a useful antidote to this recent news article on college admissions (here).


This month, high school seniors throughout California are receiving college decision notices of acceptance and rejection. They, and their parents, will think, “Where I go to college will decide my employment future.”


What do we know about college choice and job success in California? How important is college selection in determining employment future?


Nearly twenty years ago I wrote about the shifting job market in California and the declining importance of college selection. In the intervening years, the  economic and social forces behind these shifts have only accelerated: the  market pressures eliminating jobs based on relations, the government and business rules increasing competition, and most of all, the importance of  specific job skills/job experience in hiring in contrast to degrees and certifications.


Today, whether you to college retains some importance in job selection. But where you go to college is of almost no importance. Whether your degree, for example, is from, say, UCLA or from less prestigious Sonoma State matters far less than your university record and the skills you can show an employer.


Research on the impact of college selection has focused on earnings comparisons of graduates of different colleges. In 1999, economists Alan Krueger and Stacy Berg Dale published a widely-read study, comparing the earnings of graduates of elite colleges with graduates of “moderately selective” schools. The latter group was composed of persons who had been admitted to an elite college but chose to attend another school.


The economists found that the earnings of the two groups differed little or not at all twenty years after college graduation. In a larger follow up study , released in 2011 and covering 19,000 college graduates, the economists reached a similar conclusion: University of Penn or Penn State, Williams or Miami University of Ohio, job outcomes in terms of earnings were unaffected.


Earnings are only a part of the employment picture. Other elements such as job satisfaction or social value are more difficult to measure. In a thoughtful 2004 essay visiting Brookings Fellow Gregg Easterbrook  interviewed college officials throughout the country to assess these impacts. His conclusion: on a range of job indices, attending an elite college or not had little impact. Forty years ago, elite colleges offered a higher level of education. Today, there are a hundred or two hundred colleges that offer a similar level of education, with high quality faculty and facilities.


The minor role of college choice in hiring is most clear in discussions with workforce professionals in California. Ms. Kris Stadelman,  the director of the NOVA Workforce Investment Board in Silicon Valley, has been a leader in understanding changing hiring criteria in California. “Employers are interested in what skills you bring and how these skills can be used in their business”, Ms. Stadelman explains.  NOVA has undertaken several studies of focused interviews  with tech employers, who hardly mention degrees, and instead emphasize mastery of the most current technologies. “Especially in the tech industry, employers want to see skills applications rather than traditional resumes. Show, don’t tell”, says Stadelman.


For the past three years, as part of a research project,  Bureau of Labor Statistics Regional Commissioner Richard Holden and I have tracked hiring criteria of firms outside of tech. We have found in these non-tech fields a similar focus on specific job-related skills as well as on problem-solving abilities and ability to work as part of a team—not college degrees or even college connections.


As a volunteer job coach, I encourage every young adult who is at all interested in college to attend college. Unless there is family financial need, there is no reason to rush into the workforce, as work-lives are now an estimated 40 years.

Further, if you have the good fortune to choose among colleges, it is worth taking the process seriously. Obtain fullest information to evaluate desired location, size of student body, and educational specialties.

But in some part of your mind know: Your employment success will depend very marginally on college choice; far more important will be numerous other career choices to be made, character and persistence, and to a good extent mazel.