The Meaning and Use of Associate Degrees in the Employment of IT Technicians

Michelle Van Noy

The Meaning and Use of Associate Degrees in the Employment of IT Technicians
Van Noy, Michelle
Thesis Advisor(s):
Pallas, Aaron M.
Institute on Education and the Economy
Sociology and Education
Human Development
Persistent URL:
Ph.D., Columbia University.
Educational credentials are clearly linked to economic success, but the reasons for this link are not clear. Common theoretical approaches provide explanations but lack direct employer perspectives on credentials' meaning and the context in which employers make sense of credentials. In this study, I used an alternative perspective based in Meyer's (1977) theory of education as an institution, labor market sociology, the sociology of work, and organizational theory to examine the role of social context in how employers make sense of the associate degree for IT technician jobs. I conducted comparative case studies of contrasting labor markets: Detroit and Seattle. I interviewed 78 hiring managers in 58 organizations of varying types about their perceptions and ways of using degrees in hiring IT technicians. Hiring managers' perspectives on associate and bachelor's degrees for IT technician jobs reflect their ideas of degree holders' social roles. They expected associate degree holders to be eager to please and to lack ability, skill, and initiative relative to the bachelor's degree holders. In contrast, they expected bachelor's degree holders to feel entitled. These expectations of traits found in different degree holders illustrate the relative status differences between these credentials and degree holders' reaction to these differences. Hiring managers held ideas about associate degrees specific to their local labor market. Detroit hiring managers more commonly expected associate degrees to signify commitment to career, while Seattle hiring managers more commonly expected them to signify lack of ability, skill, and initiative. These differing views may be associated with the level of education in the local population and the reputation of local community colleges. Some evidence indicates that bureaucracy in hiring may also influence the use of educational credentials. Further research is needed to understand the role of organizational context. The key finding of this study is that credentials exist in a relational context. Degrees take on meaning in relationship to social context, including: other degrees, the occupation, the local labor market, and potentially the organization. This finding exists in contrast to common theories that propose standard meanings associated with educational credentials but miss these more specific, situated meanings.
Sociology of education
Higher education
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Suggested Citation:
Michelle Van Noy, , The Meaning and Use of Associate Degrees in the Employment of IT Technicians, Columbia University Academic Commons, .

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