Work Experience vs. Education: An Overview

It is a debate as old as higher education itself: What matters most when it comes to getting a job? 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? Here is what the evidence shows.

Key Takeaways

  • Educational attainment and income are closely correlated, with higher degrees 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 importance.
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Experience Vs. Education: Which Is Most Important?

Work Experience vs. Education

The arguments for higher education vs. work experience (and vice versa) are varied, but the main ones go something 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 kept 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

There is little question that more education often leads to a better job—at least if you define "better job" in terms of paycheck. A 2018 report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) summed it up this way: "It is hard to quantify the full value of an education. But U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data consistently show that, in terms of dollars, education makes sense...the more you learn, the more you earn."

The numbers bear that out. For example, May 2020 data from the BLS show that among workers age 25 and older, those with doctoral or professional degrees had the highest median weekly earnings ($1,883 and $1,861 respectively), followed by those with master's degrees ($1,497), bachelor's degrees ($1,248), and associate's degrees ($887). At the bottom of the list: workers without a high school diploma ($592).

More education also closely aligns with lower unemployment rates. For example, the May 2020 BLS data show that people with doctoral or professional degrees had unemployment rates of well under 2% and bachelor's degree holders had an unemployment rate of just over 2%. For those without a high school diploma, the unemployment rate exceeded 5%.

Having a degree (or several) on their resumes can also give job applicants an edge in getting hired in the first place, surveys show. For example, a 2018 report from the Association of Colleges and Universities (AACU) found 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 a 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 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.

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. A mere 12% and 15% respectively said it was not worth it.

In the ideal case, you, the job candidate, can show prospective employers that you have both the education and the experience you need to 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.

As Margaret Steen, writing for HRWorld.com, notes, "A graduate degree, especially from a top school, may give a candidate an edge for an engineering position...In a field like sales, though, results are what matter most—and you do not get sales results from a graduate program."