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What matters most when it comes to getting a job is a debate as old as higher education itself. Does that higher degree get your foot in the door, or does your past work experience count for more? And beyond simply obtaining a job, will your experience or your education serve you better in terms of staying employed, growing in your career, and making a good living for decades to come?

In this article we’ll seek to get to the bottom of those questions, drawing upon research, data, and surveys.

Key Takeaways

  • Educational attainment and income are closely correlated, with higher degrees typically leading to higher salaries.
  • Better educated workers also have lower rates of unemployment.
  • Higher education is especially important for people early in their careers. As you move along, job experience and the acquisition of new skills can take on added weight.

Experience Vs. Education: Which Is Most Important?

Work Experience vs. Education: An Overview

The arguments for higher education vs. work experience (and vice versa) are varied, but some of the main ones go like this:

  • Obtaining a higher education only proves you can succeed in academia, not in a real-world job situation. Success in actual work tells prospective employers more about what you have to offer.
  • Work experience can make you a good match for a particular job today, but without higher education you may lack the skills that are important for advancement tomorrow.
  • A degree can show that you have the specialized knowledge or technical skills an employer is looking for and that can be transferred to the workplace with minimal on-the-job training.

The Value of Work Experience

If you’re a recent graduate, your new degree may serve as evidence that you’ve acquired the skills necessary for an entry-level job in your chosen field. Prospective employers are likely to see you as someone who can get up to speed quickly, requiring little on-the-job training, which costs employers both time and money.

Any work experience you’ve acquired along the way can help, too, whether it came in the form of an internship in your field or simply a job to pay the bills. As George D. Kuh noted in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “research suggests that working during college is related to acquiring such employer-preferred skills as teamwork and time management.” Such work, Kuh adds, also “helps students see firsthand the practical value of their classroom learning by applying it in real-life settings—which, additionally, often helps to clarify their career aspirations.”

On the other hand, if you obtained your degree 15 or 20 years ago, especially in a technological field, it is almost irrelevant now—at least as evidence of what you have to offer an employer today. You’ll need to show potential employers that you’ve continued learning, kept up with industry trends, and acquired whatever new skills the employer requires. Further education, such as participating in a relevant certificate program, can help as well.

The Value of Education

More education often leads to better job stability and pay. A common theme from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) research on employment opportunities is that those with higher levels of education typically earn more and experience lower rates of unemployment.

The latest BLS data, published in June 2021, revealed that workers with professional or doctoral degrees had the highest median weekly earnings ($1,893 and $1,885, respectively), followed by those with master’s degrees ($1,545), bachelor’s degrees ($1,305), and associate’s degrees ($938). At the bottom of the list were workers without a high school diploma ($619).

Workers with a bachelor’s degree had median weekly earnings of $1,305 in 2020, compared with $781 for workers with a high school diploma.

More education also closely aligns with lower unemployment rates. The June 2021 BLS data shows, for example, that people with doctoral or professional degrees had unemployment rates of 3.1% or lower during 2020, a year characterized by vast COVID-19 related layoffs, versus 11.7% for those without a high school diploma.

Having a degree (or several) on their resumes can also give job applicants an edge in getting hired in the first place, surveys show. A 2018 report from the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) found, for instance, that 82% of executives and 75% of hiring managers surveyed “believe that it is very important or absolutely essential for individuals today to complete a college education.”

Many of the skills they cited as most important didn’t involve a specific curriculum but had more to do with the sorts of soft skills that college is often said to confer. As an example, 90% of hiring managers cited the ability to “communicate effectively orally” as very important and 87% said the same thing about the ability to “work effectively in teams.”

There are trade-offs, of course. College is expensive, and the more years you spend getting degrees, the fewer years you’ll be out in the workforce, earning money. Obtaining a bachelor’s degree or a more advanced degree may also mean taking on thousands of dollars of student debt, which could take years to pay off after you’ve started your career—as well as affect other life decisions, such as buying a home, getting married, or raising a family.

The Bottom Line

In the long run, the bottom-line benefit of higher education is difficult to dispute. In the AACU study, 88% of the executives and 85% of the hiring managers surveyed said they considered the money and time involved in getting a college degree to be either definitely or probably worth it.

The ideal mix of education and experience can vary from field to field. While a graduate degree is important for some jobs, it may be of little value in others.

In the ideal case, you, the job candidate, can show prospective employers that you have both the education and the experience you need to excel in your chosen line of work. That mix can vary from field to field and may not require a more advanced degree than, say, a bachelor’s.

Do Employers Prefer Experience or Education?

That depends on the type of job and the hiring person’s preferences. Surveys over the years point to most employers valuing higher education. However, experience, too, can play a critical role in deciding who to give a job or promotion to.

Some professions demand a certain level of higher education as an entry requirement. Others, such as a job in sales, tend to value results and work experience more.

Can Education Replace Experience?

In some cases, yes. The completion of a relevant course could be viewed by employers as the equivalent of actual work experience. If that course was highly regarded, it may even be valued higher than time spent in the field.

Is a College Degree Worth the Money?

That depends on what you plan to study and what the entry requirements for your chosen profession are. In lots of professions, a degree from a good school will help
you to get a foot in the door, and move up the ranks. College is expensive, though, and might not always be necessary.

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