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Bachelor's degree is linked to career advancement more than formerly,but graduating from selective schools seems to matter less, study finds

August 1, 2003

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz,

Although in the past many top corporate executives never attended colleges, today's executives often have graduate degrees, and it is generally believed nowadays that more education translates into more career advancement.

In a study presented at the Academy of Management 2003 annual meeting, four scholars probe the changing relationship between education and career attainment and come up with some surprising results.

Given a rare opportunity to analyze the occupational records of one of the largest U.S.-based companies, Amy E. Hurley and Stefan Wally of Chapman University, Sharon L. Segrest of California State University, Fullteron, and Jeffrey A. Sonnenfeld of Yale compared the career advancement of two cohorts of managers who currently work for the company and started there a decade apart -- 540 who started in 1972 and 968 who began in 1982. The company, in a service industry, has about 200,000 employees. Ninety percent of the two cohorts were male, 83 percent were white, and 10.5 percent were African-American.

Among the 1972 group, the researchers found, neither total years of education nor earning a bachelor's degree was significantly related to career advancement, whereas in the group that entered the company a decade later, both were significantly linked to it. Earning a master's degree was associated with career advancement in both the 1972 and 1982 groups.

But while quantity of education grew in importance, the import of quality apparently receded -- at least with regard to the selectivity of the colleges or universities that the managers attended.

In the study, those schools were rated on selectivity, on a scale ranging from a low of one to a high of six, based on three factors -- high-school-class rankings and average SAT scores of entering freshmen and percentage of applicants offered admission. The degree of selectivity was significantly related to career advancement in the 1972 cohort but not in the 1982 group.

Expressing surprise at this finding, the study's authors surmise that it may have to do with the fact that this is a company where "people work their way up the ranks...[S]electivity of college may become more important in firms that are not internal labor markets."

Another surprising finding was that earning a bachelor's or master's degree after joining the firm did not contribute to career attainment for either the 1972 or 1982 cohort. "Universities have always advocated the benefits of obtaining a degree to students who may already by in the work force," the study's authors note. "It may be that those working students who are pursuing a degree related to their job may experience a positive effect for the degree, while other pursuing more general degrees do not. Also, it may be that a person has to change companies in order to reap the career benefits of obtaining additional education."

The Academy of Management, founded in 1936, is the largest organization in the world devoted to management research and teaching. It has over 13,000 members in 90 countries, including some 9,000 in the United States. The academy's 2003 annual meeting drew 6,000 scholars and practitioners to Seattle for more than 1,000 sessions on a host of issues relating to corporate organization, the workplace, technology development, and other management-related subjects

Media Coverage:
South Florida Sun-Sentinel. Organize your job search or perish. (Monday, February 02, 2004).

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