Social skills predict future earnings better than test scores

Ten years after graduation, high-school students who had been rated as conscientious and cooperative by their teachers were earning more than classmates who had similar test scores but fewer social skills, a new University of Illinois (UI) study has found. The study’s findings, appearing in the journal Social Science Research, challenge the notion that racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic gaps in educational attainment and earnings can be narrowed solely by emphasizing cognitive skills.

“It’s important to note that good schools do more than teach reading, writing, and math. They socialize students and provide the kinds of learning opportunities that help them to become good citizens and to be successful in the labor market,” said UI’s Christy Lleras. “Unless we address the differences in school climates and curriculum that foster good work habits and other social skills, we’re doing a huge disservice to low-income kids.” She also cited responses to employer surveys that stress the need for workers who can get along well with each other and get along well with the public.

To measure conscientiousness, Lleras ranked teacher responses to such questions as: Does this student usually work hard for good grades? How often does the student complete homework assignments? How often is this student tardy to class? To measure cooperativeness and sociability, she ranked teacher assessments of how well a student related to other students. Teachers were also asked to rank a student’s motivation or passivity. Participation in sports and school organizations also had strong effects on a student’s future educational and occupational success.

“For African American and Hispanic students only, participation in fine arts led to significantly better earnings compared to whites. This suggests that different activities teach kids different kinds of skills and learned behaviors,” she said.

Lleras also emphasized the importance of improving school quality. “Low-income and racial minority students continue to be concentrated in lower-quality schools with fewer opportunities for extracurricular participation, larger class sizes, and lower teacher quality, all factors that are correlated with poorer school-related attitudes and behavior,” she said. “If the few resources that low-performing schools have are used solely for testing and preparing students for tests, which is what many schools are doing to meet the requirements set forth in No Child Left Behind, these schools will continue to face challenges.”

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Source: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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