Is it worth trying to get a good degree?

15th May, 2010

Dear Economist,
After years of hard work I am about to finish my degree in economics. Maybe I shouldn’t say “years of hard work”. I skipped quite a lot. Now I’m worried that in the middle of a recession, I’m going to graduate with a lousy degree. Will reading “The Undercover Economist” get me through? Or should I be in the library?
George, London

Dear George,

Flattery will do you no good: I shall give my usual frank advice. You should be worried about graduating in the middle of a recession. I’ve written before about the research of Till Marco von Wachter, who estimates that graduating in a recession depresses your earnings for many years thereafter. You should also be worried about graduating with a bad degree, but not for the reasons you think.

Researchers have known for a long time that graduates with first-class degrees are more likely to end up with a job or a postgraduate place than graduates with third-class degrees. The question is whether this is because of the degree class itself, or because both employers and examiners are independently picking up the same traits. It’s hard to say, because employers – with access to references and interim test results – may have much more information than researchers do.

New research by Giorgio Di Pietro looks at data from an unnamed UK university. Di Pietro compares candidates with identical – or very similar – test scores, but who (because of the arbitrariness of the dividing line, or because of the discretion of the board of examiners) are awarded a different class of degree.

The good news is that once your underlying scores are taken into account, your degree class seems to make no difference to your chance of a job or further place. The bad news is that no matter how hard you work from now on, your fate has probably been sealed already.

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