The role of education in achieving success emerged as a major theme in a recent survey we have conducted, providing encouraging data about the positive way in which the general public views learning.
Education and professional success are intimately linked, and the emphasis in higher education is increasingly on successful placement of undergraduates and post-graduates into employment.
Of course, securing employment after graduation is hopefully only the first of a series of professional successes. As candidates accumulate workplace experience and skills learned through work, the role of education in subsequent successes becomes progressively more obscured. Nevertheless, the evidence that it continues to exert long-term influence on professional success is plentiful.
Remarks were made on the large volume of articles in the business world promising tips on becoming successful by emulating “successful people”. Though these articles rarely go into depth about just how “success” is defined, the assumption most articles seem to make is that it’s linked primarily to career advancement and salary.
Readers of these publications may well look to the mega-rich for this guidance on success, and any list of billionaires leans strongly towards the near-necessity of higher education. Forbes’ recent list of top ten billionaires is a case in point. Carlos Slim, Warren Buffet, the Koch brothers and Jim Walton are all graduates; Christy Walton and Liliane Bettencourt inherited the fortunes of graduates; and though software-giant founders Bill Gates and Larry Ellison are famous college drop-outs, both acknowledge the importance of the time they did spend there. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has spent hundreds of millions on higher education-related initiatives.
According to the American data, those with bachelor’s degrees earn around $300 more than those with associate’s degrees and $400 more than those with only high school diplomas. Master’s degrees and professional/doctoral degrees offer $300 increments beyond this.
The British data however doesn’t just suggest that education exerts its influence in general terms – it shows that the influence is long-term, with graduates seeing average annual wages of around £4,000 to £8,000 more than those with apprenticeships for most of their working life.
Salary is just one aspect of professional success, though an important one. Career paths are also affected by the decision to progress to higher education – most obviously, law and medicine are exclusive to graduates, but a range of industries provide a range of roles exclusively available to this population.
A well-rounded idea of success goes well beyond having a good salary – the importance of doing work you enjoy is significant for most people, and both graduates and non-graduates are fortunate enough to achieve this type of success, regardless of where on the government’s skill-scale they would fall. However, the superior range of paths available, as well as the greater likelihood of finding a challenging position, make professional success even more likely for graduates.
Higher salaries and skillsets point towards an employment pattern where graduates enjoy greater seniority within businesses. Though 21 year-old graduates are typically on equal footing with A-level/high-school diploma students, a graduate’s average salary rapidly rises to be as much as 160% of a non-graduate’s by age 29. This is partly a consequence of graduates only gradually finding their way into higher-skilled, better paying industries, but it is also a reflection of the greater suitability of graduates for senior and leadership roles.
Although employers place a high emphasis on workplace skills, with some even arguing that graduates lack such skills, universities are keen to maintain and further improve solid graduate employment rates. The rapid rise in average pay for graduates shows that the vast majority of university students adapt and advance quickly once in a position. Why is this? Graduate aptitude is obviously tested through academic grading, but the life skills necessary for negotiating through a three-year course are often underestimated. Learning at university level is a disciplined process testing a great range of analytical and linguistic skills at the root of most of human endeavour. Simple self-confidence and perseverance are also tested, along with timekeeping, creative problem solving and the self-actualisation necessary to argue a case for advancement.
The proof that education influences professional success is seen via a wealth of employment data, showing that earning potential is higher, career possibilities are wider and career progression faster. The value of a degree is not just in the literal application of the knowledge gained from different courses, but in the skills and habits picked up via the process of study.