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No college degree, no promotion?

In the October 31, 2017 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a successful manager pays the price of working for an employer who values a college degree more than the employee’s proven abilities.

Question

I have a great job in a fantastic company. Well, it’s fantastic except for HR.

college degreeI am an information technology (IT) manager with approximately 25 years experience. I lead a fantastic team. I have been a manager for many years here, I love my job, have never had a performance issue and, in fact, my team scores as the highest-engaged in the organization. I write industry articles and I am respected in my field.

While I am the only manager that reports directly to a C-Suite leader, my peers are at the director level. We (my boss and I) have been told time and time again that I cannot be promoted to director because I do not have a degree. I do the same work and have the same level of responsibility as my director peers, but without a degree they will not allow me to rise above manager.

I am basically a director without a proper title. Does this fall under any sort of discrimination? What can I do about it? I would love to go back to school but I am currently putting my own kids through college.

It is frustrating to think that I would have to leave a job and company I truly love just to further my career.

Nick’s Reply

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this story. It’s a distressing commentary on corporate management. Unless someone has explained to you what the material value of a degree is to the director-level jobs, the company is risking losing one of its most productive people for what seems to be an arbitrary reason.

How much is a college degree worth?

Check out what one reader did, in No College Degree, No Problem. The article discusses some tips from two of my PDF books that might be helpful in demonstrating your value to your employer.
I would stop there, but you said something that possibly reveals a more insidious problem. You do the same work as the directors, but you’re only a manager. I’m guessing you’re also paid less than the directors. Is it possible your lack of a degree is being used as an excuse to avoid paying you a director-level salary? How much is that degree worth in salary? Is there a way you could compensate for the degree that your company might find acceptable?

I’m not a lawyer so I can’t comment on discrimination or legalities. It might be worth investing a few bucks in a good employment attorney for an opinion and guidance. My guess is that their advice might depend on whether the degree requirement is levied on all employees or just on you — and on whether you’re paid less than others for the same work.

The EvilHRLady

To get another perspective, I turned to my good buddy Suzanne Lucas, who writes the outstanding (and contrarian) EvilHRLady column for Inc. magazine. She’s one of the few HR gurus I respect and trust — her insights and advice cut through the bureaucracy every time. She’s not a lawyer, either, but she’s got more experience with HR compliance than I do. Here’s her reaction to what I told her about your situation:

“There’s nothing illegal about discriminating against someone who lacks a college degree, but there is a whole lot of stupid involved. If you’ve got years of experience that prove your capabilities, then what does it matter what you did between the ages of 18 and 22?

“That said, I’d advise you to do a degree. I tend to recommend Western Governors University for situations like this. Not because I think you need to learn these things but because companies are super hung up on the idea that everyone needs a degree.”

A whole lot of stupid about a college degree

Suzanne and I agree: Your employer has a whole lot of stupid going on.

But we’re both pragmatists, and that’s why I also agree with her prescription. You need to decide what’s important to you, and figure out how to achieve it. If your company is dead-set against promoting you without a degree, your next step is to find good companies that will commit to your career growth without the need for a degree. Or you have to get a degree.

You must decide which route to take.

The ROI of a college degree

I think I’d take one more shot at convincing your management that you deserve to be a director without a degree. Run this by your boss first, but then request a meeting with the president or CEO of your company. Negotiate. Respectfully make your case about how you can deliver the ROI expected of a director — but do not threaten to quit. Explain that you understand the policy, but that you wanted to ask whether they’d make an exception after qualifying you in some other way for a director’s job. If you’re told No, shake hands, smile, and go back to work.

Then decide what to do.

If you decide a degree is a solution, you may not have to wait until your kids finish college. Be smart about it. Get a degree from an accredited distance-learning college that doesn’t cost as much as a traditional school. (See Can I earn a degree from the School of Hard Knocks?) In other words, calculate the return on investment (ROI). You may find it’s positive and worth the investment.

Find an accredited distance-learning school

While I trust Suzanne’s guidance, I don’t know the school she recommends. One of my favorite distance schools is New Jersey’s Thomas Edison State University. (I have no affiliation with TESU.) It’s a publicly funded, accredited state school. Do your own research. Consider trying a degree program. Just make sure it’s accredited and that any credits you earn are transferable.

Here’s what you might not know. The cost of a degree may be less than you think. Likewise the investment of time. And the ROI may be better than you’d guess. I learned these tips long ago from my friends at Thomas Edison:

  • You can test out of many required courses by virtue of your knowledge and experience.
  • This saves you money, and it can cut down the time to a degree dramatically.
  • You can even complete much of the coursework and then transfer your credits to a better-known bricks-and-mortar school if it means something to you to have a sheepskin from a “name” school. (I wouldn’t worry about that.)

Don’t rule out the degree too quickly because of cost. There’s probably a similar state-funded college where you live.

Solve the problem

Your problem is not lack of a degree. Your problem is that you can’t get the kind of job and title you want. So focus on how to do that. Talking to your management one more time is important — don’t make any assumptions. Then choose.

The risk you face if you leave your job to go to another company without a degree is that you may face the same problem. Like Suzanne Lucas, I think your company’s policy may be counter-productive. But I don’t control employers. And you can control only yourself.

I wish you the best.

An even bigger problem

pumpkins

Because we love to have in-your-face discussions about heavy-duty issues here, I’d like to point readers to an article in the Washington Post: Wanted for any job: A bachelor’s degree. Is that smart? (Heads up: The Post requires a paid subscription to read more than a limited number of free articles.) Here’s the controversy:

“Look closely at most job advertisements these days and you’ll notice an interesting, if not disturbing, trend: Most of them require a four-year college degree.

“Economists refer to this phenomenon as ‘degree inflation,’ and it is spreading across all kinds of industries and jobs. Among the positions never requiring a college degree in the past that are quickly adding that to the list of desired requirements: dental hygienists, photographers, claims adjusters, freight agents and chemical equipment operators.”

Hmmm. WTF?

When do college degrees really matter? Have employers gone bonkers? Are the economists right — is there real degree inflation? Okay, folks — it’s time to pile on!

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77 Comments
  1. Need a college degree to become an IT director? Frustrating. Just HR & corporate being HR & corporate. Of course it is well to remember tech gods Jobs, Gates & Zuckerberg don’t/didn’t have college degrees & they did kind of okay for themselves. Ironic that though none of them earned undergraduate degrees, their companies require them & frequently graduate degrees, for most employees – often from top schools. Ugh! Just saying …

    • I agree. If the company really wants him and they want him to have that college degree, then they should have no problem, sponsoring at least part of the cost of a degree.

      He can get his degree from a distance education college so he does not have to take time off from work. There are also colleges which do APL – accreditation of prior learning – in which he would get advanced standing based on his years of work experience.

      Using that method he could get the degree in less than 4 years, at a cheaper (and sponsored!) cost and still keep his job and potential for promotion to director.

    • One point I tried to make in my suggestion that the OP talk with top management is that employers need to develop sound, objective ways to define the value and need of a college degree. No employer pays for a “degree” (unless they’re totally naive and stupid). They pay for what the degree means to the company’s success.

      So: What does the degree mean?

      It’s critical for employers, schools and people to figure this out. Where’s the national debate? There is none.

      Until this question is addressed, we’re all — pardon me — pissing up a rope while we try to figure out how to do more profitable work.

      • The same could be said of a lot of the other job “requirements” people have. It seems to me that companies do a poor job of actually identifying the actual requirements for a job and then measuring candidates to that standard. In other words, if you’re looking for a senior basket weaver, let’s test you on actual basket weaving, and if you can sufficiently prove that you’re an expert, does it really matter how you got there?

      • Yes, the national or industry debate, resolutions & improvements needs to happen. That’s a whole other & broader based discussion. Maybe it’s time to reinstitute some better forms of apprenticeships along with perhaps the fairest & most reasonable way to measure performance – doing the actual job via adequate probationary periods?

        But, if we are solely trying to answer the poster’s major quandary, I feel the answer is quite obvious & simple (simple not necessarily meaning easy). Taken at face value that the facts & situation are as presented with the person performing at or above peers & colleagues … no, the person should absolutely not, especially at this point in their career, need a college degree to go to the next level. Irrelevant!

        To use a ridiculous example because it’s easily measurable – if you beat me in a foot race & are the clear winner / out performer, it should be of no consequence that you don’t advance to the next race because you didn’t go to college. Only those with degrees can move on. Hmm …?

        Those citing that college provides distinct skills, tools, perspectives, experiences, etc. or those citing that the poster suck it up & just jump on the bandwagon & go get the degree because that’s the way it is, have valid points of view. Though, again, they are ancillary to the main dilemma.

        p.s. Multi-degreed, & BTW former software developer / systems engineer, so I get it.

  2. Since a college degree seems to be so important, ask if the Company will help in securing a degree. At least one (generally) highly rated graduate school of business accepts students without an undergraduate degree (at least it did 40+ years ago when I was a student there). Ask the Company if it will sponsor you for that school’s Executive MBA program, and contribute to at least a portion of the tuition. You’ll only be in classes every other weekend for 21 months, you’ll still be working, and when you’re done you’ll have an MBA. (Of course, THAT might be viewed as a threat by those broad-minded HR folks.)

    • “Since a college degree seems to be so important, ask if the Company will help in securing a degree. ”

      I think this is something worth asking the employer if they are hell bent on people having degrees.

    • @Robert: Ah, what’s a degree worth? And, is an employer that requires one willing to invest in it? (No, not pay for it. If it’s worth something, it’s an investment with an ROI.)

      I’d love to hear from some smart, state-of-the-art HR folks. I know you’re out there. What’s the thinking on this? Is there any?

  3. College degree is the new class divide, not just for employment but in social settings as well. Go on any dating site and see almost all degreed women refuse to date a man who is not educationally endowed. Sheepskin is the admission ticket to the ruling elite.

  4. Let me tell you I have first-hand experience with this.

    1. Get the degree. And I bet that the company you work for may have some type of educational program that fully or partially funds it. I’m betting you never even asked. When someone gives excuses for not getting it, I’m less inclined to feel sorry for their plight. Over 25 yrs, you could have made the time and paid for it as you went.

    2. I saw that not having the degree was a big liability early on in my career, and decided to go ahead and do it. Between 4 schools and 12 yrs, I got it done. The difference in the way I was treated pre-degree and post-degree was positively incredible. No one could have told me how stark that difference was going to be. But it was totally worth the effort and sacrifice. The stack of professional certifications I piled up over the years meant NOTHING until I got that degree.

    3. If you think you/should have the same rights/money as the folks who went through the degree process and be promoted without it, consider this, there is going to be resentment from your colleagues, current & new. Unless you are the prodigal son, and are making the company millions and millions of $$, it’s not likely you’d be treated equally even if you get that much coveted promotion. *IT depts are notorious black holes for $$, not profit centers.

    4. Since I went through this process first-hand, I have to ask what makes you think that some of the other people already at that level haven’t gone through a much more grueling process over a number of years to get there…ie what makes you so special and more worthy…they too may have time & experience, but also took the time before their career, or over the years to make the sacrifice and get the degree, while you made sure you took all your vacations. Not everyone is a trust-fund baby.

    5. If you believe that not having a degree, but having time & experience qualifies you for special consideration, I can tell you it’s not. Try jumping ahead in a line, anywhere, and see how many fangs come out. Even the boss’s children/relatives learn this, even when they are well-qualified.

    6. I work with qualified folks without degrees every day who haven’t made the effort to get them. Since I went through the entire process to do it, I can tell you that I personally consider it a failing on their part. Unless you’re a genius who starts your own companies and sells them for millions, you should be held to the same standards as everyone else in the company. You knew it when you took the job, now, 25 yrs later you’re complaining. If you don’t like it, move on, but the lack of the degree will haunt your job hunting.

    7. Someone who has to go to a website to whine about how unfair the process is to them, is someone who is obviously not going to make the effort to do what it takes, and is looking for shortcuts. This isn’t someone that would be a good choice to promote, in my experience anyways.

    Just my 2 cents. I just got used to doing what it takes to be successful in my career, so I feel compelled to respond to this type of complaint. In today’s world, it’s positively stupid to not just do it, as you don’t even have to set foot in a physical classroom. And if you lack the discipline to do it via computer, well, then that’s an even more obvious lack of motivation. Hanging around for 25 yrs & having people like you doesn’t automatically qualify you to move up the chain. The Peter Principle would indicate this guy is actually one level higher than what he’s really able to handle anyway.

    • Wow.

      I have a bachelor’s degree and my CPA and I will absolutely agree that both of those have made a difference in my treatment in the work world. I also agree that there are very accessible ways to obtain a degree these days and this person should inquire about tuition assistance if that is the primary concern. Having kids in traditional college myself right now, I understand the financial pressure.

      Congratulations on the hard work you put into getting a degree, I commend you for that.

      At the same time, the rancor I feel in your response is, IMHO, part of the problem. I work with hiring managers all the time who want to add a college degree – literally any degree will do! – for a more experienced role when it isn’t necessary for the position.

      Just because I have a degree and have seen the benefits doesn’t mean I should A) look down on those who don’t or B) when I’m hiring, require a degree that would most likely have been obtained 20+ years ago and in all likelihood is not relevant anymore.

    • Wow indeed.

      A degree is an accreditation of your intelligence that is arguably useful for predicting whether you will succeed in an entry-level job. Someone who has succeeded as a middle manager is fully capable of doing that job…so why do companies place that obstacle in their way? Why is a degree better proof of a person’s ability to do a job than actually DOING the job?

      I sense some defensiveness here. You got a degree mid-career; good for you. But unless you got it to break into a new field, you shouldn’t have needed one. Demanding it of new employees just to pacify the older ones perpetuates a bad cycle.

      • I was going to comment further down to say the same things.

        It seems to me that a degree is most valuable when getting that first junior level job in a field. Once you prove your worth and move up the ladder and get your feet under you, it becomes (or at least should become) less important.

      • @Mike B: I wish I had the reference handy, but intelligence (IQ) actually is good at predicting whether you will be successful in school. And not much else.

    • You’re confusing credentials with education. I have no more than a BA from an Ivy League school, and I work with some incredibly stupid people with PhDs. They jumped through hoops, took their multiple-choice or short-answer tests, and completed their anemic theses – and remain incompetent. Luckily my company promotes based on productivity rather than arbitrary proxies.

    • I am glad things worked out well for you but I am absolutely stunned by the tone and content of your response.
      Quite frankly, I can’t be certain this degree actually offered you little more than an opportunity to jump through some clearly defined hoops.

      Beyond the right experience and job training, I look for people who are driven by curiosity, agile, resilient, self aware, creative problem solvers, excellent verbal/writing skills.. It helps if they have traveled, speak more than one language and have been exposed to working in multicultural environments. I also look for people who are life long learners who have expanded their knowledge over time by taking on new projects, certifications, or focused on personal development. Values and behaviors also rate very high.

      Some fields require advanced degrees, others less so. I am afraid you did not make the case for a degree but made me even more leary of them defining intelligence, commitment or potential. I have also noticed that the work done in many universities today is at the level that high school was years ago. As time has gone by I assume less and less and less.

      • &HR Hybrid: I look for people who are driven by curiosity, agile, resilient, self aware, creative problem solvers, excellent verbal/writing skills.. It helps if they have traveled, speak more than one language and have been exposed to working in multicultural environments. I also look for people who are life long learners who have expanded their knowledge over time by taking on new projects, certifications, or focused on personal development. Values and behaviors also rate very high.

        I like your list! I look for one thing more than anything else: Can a person show me that they can ride a fast learning curve without falling off?

    • Wow indeed. Bully for you, Lauren. You got your degree. Not everyone is the same as you. The LW is putting his kids through school, and college these days is very expensive. What should matter is whether the LW is able to do the job–getting a college degree will make HR happy because he’ll be able to check a box, but will it help him do the job he has now any better? Maybe, but maybe not. The LW is older, which means that dropping out of his life for four years isn’t an option. I don’t think not getting a degree is a failing on the part of those people. There are many jobs posted today that “require” a college degree simply because HR or someone else figured why not add it to the list of requirements without ever taking the time to consider whether a college degree is necessary to do the job. For some jobs, it is, but for too many jobs, it isn’t. Does going to college help you grow as a person, expose you to new and different ideas, people, etc.? Yes, sometimes it can.

      I currently work at a community college, and prior to that I worked at a large state university. Getting a college degree is not a guarantee of anything. Without knowing anything else about a job candidate, particularly if he is young, all it means to me is that he had the ability to stick to a program and to learn (the latter is up for discussion, as too many college programs have been dumbed down to the point that they don’t mean what they did 30 years ago). If I were an employer, experience would trump a college degree, assuming that I’m not hiring teachers, nurses, doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc.

  5. Perhaps it’s been hinted at here, but let me make this point:

    Many institutions of higher learning will grant college credit for work experience.

    As former career enlisted military, I was granted nearly enough credits from my work experience to qualify for an Associates degree in Computer Science. The only additional requirements were the standard “base” courses, which can be earned at either a local 2 year college or online.

    With your long career in IT and management, you’d probably fall into this category.

    Not only saved money and time, but put a positive spin on my attitude towards the entire process.

    It may not be for everyone, but it certainly worked for me.

    • Addendum: Went on to get Bachelor’s in Business Management. My years as a military “manager” certainly contributed to this; I found that most of the management principles taught were “been there, done that” for me. The correspondent’s background could very well work in his favor.

    • I mentioned this in my Reply — distance-learning schools are especially likely to award credits for work experience, but they usually require you to take some sort of test.

  6. College degree required. One thought is that completing any college degree teaches you many things or shall I say prepares you for real life. For instance, unfairness, tenacity, and perseverance. How many times during college did the grades get curved unfairly? How many weed out classes did you make it through? How many classes you had to take that you hated?

    • @WEFORD . . . I agree, my Bachelors degree from Michigan was hard earned and worth every penny. Unfortunately today, tuition and books has become extremely expensive. My first employer required a college degree. . . period. Most of my peers had a Liberal Arts degree because it was the easiest to obtain . . . made for great goading over beers!

    • I’m a big advocate for a 4-year college degree just because I am. I think it’s a phenomenal learning and cultivating experience that almost anyone would benefit from.

      Should a person be denied a job because they lack a degree? No. I don’t think so.

      Should a person be judged for a job based on whether they have a degree? Depends on the job. If I wanted you to build a nuclear reactor, you’d better have a degree because odds are not good that someone without the degree will have both the theory and skills necessary. That’s not to say someone with the degree can build a reactor.

  7. Years ago, I worked at a small company that was purchased by a large, multi-national firm. I very much felt the same as the person who asked the question – I did not see the value of having my degree as long as I worked in IT at a small company. My wife was insistent that I get it, which I obtained in May of that year. Within 4 months of my getting my degree, I was promoted to a position of leadership within my “new” company. Shortly after my promotion, my boss called me, frantic “please tell me you have a degree!” I was able to tell him that I had just graduated. His response was “whew! I wouldn’t have been able to promote you and give you that raise if you hadn’t!” I may not have agreed with the underlying premise, and still don’t, but it is how the world works and has opened doors for me that would not have been otherwise.

    • I think I know more successful people in IT who don’t have degrees than in any other field. I’m not sure what that means, except that perhaps folks in IT who really love their work can learn an awful lot on their own, without going to a school to get a degree.

      Any takers?

      • The NBA? ;-)

        Can’t speak for all fields of course, though IT, especially thru out the wild west decade of the 90’s when technology was changing at a light year speeds, when I was at a leading tech giant, we fielded a diverse staff of IT phenoms with just high school degrees & trade school certs, associate degrees, folks state colleges & those from the top universities; not to mention people from all over the world. Maybe because we had extensive testing in actually coding & software development & not nonsensical nuanced interview Q’s prior to being hired, plus a long probationary period & a hardcore specific IT / MIS training course that was literally pass / fire, they usually hired very good talent. At some level you just can either code well or not. Eventually everyone knew who the best were. You couldn’t draw strict conclusions that the top performers all came from here or there or took a particular path.

        To use a bad pun, programming can be often be seen as binary in the sense that a program or set of instructions either works or doesn’t. Putting aside slight variances, efficiencies, best practices, etc. for the sake of argument & to serve as an example, it can be more easily measurable in that it has to be essentially 100% all correct or it is not in essence correct at all. I’m sure we’ve all experienced inadequate software & applications.

        Sometimes I say that IT folks are the blue collar workers of the white collar set. Other times I’m apt to view IT similar to sports in that you are better able to measure or see who is performing / “scoring” well versus some of the softer & more subjective disciplines.

  8. Disclaimer: For anybody who will own their own business and not work for other people, a degree is optional. This is to the rest of us.

    A four-year degree does show two things: 1) The ability to prioritize 2) the ability to set and achieve a long-term goal. These are more important for someone early in the job market.

    I consider college a bit like a “credential” for going in the workforce. Especially for moving in to management. Even with the current emphasis with trades, a degree can be beneficial in the future.

    My recommendation to people, unless they have a specific end goal (engineering, nursing, etc.) go for a business degree. Understanding basic finance, accounting, and management is worthwhile.

    For today’s poster, check your company for tuition reimbursement/assistance. And use it. After you get your degree, still use. Do not stop with formal (and informal) education. Among other tings, a great too for networking. Community colleges are a great way to start on the general requirements (check with the four-year school to make sure they transfer). There is online learning. There is classroom (again, good for networking). Many schools offer non-traditional scheduling for adult professionals.

    Best of luck.

    • @Gregory: A degree can be a shorthand judgment tool. If you have one, you’re more likely to also have X, Y and Z. Humans like to use rules of thumb and for the most part that’s useful.

      The problems start when we are talking about an individual, rather than generally. I don’t think anyone could identify whether a given person has a degree or not unless they know for a fact. That makes it dangerous to dismiss talented, successful people just because they lack a degree. Both the person and the employer lose.

  9. I watched my father struggle in his career as an Industrial Engineer without a degree. He entered the field in the late 1930’s as a time study specialist. At the time there was no such thing as a degree in Industrial Engineering. He did well during WWII because of the skills shortages in war plants at the time. Following WWII he wound up competing with returning veterans who were college educated through the GI bill and his career began to wane.

    I took the lessons from his experience and I struggled through the engineering curriculum at LSU and emerged with a BSEE. I would say that the actual material (with the exception of the mathematics courses) was not entirely relevant to my fledgling career as an Radio Frequency design engineer. My experiences with Ham radio and a vocational course in communications technology were more useful. What LSU provided was an ability to analyze and learn systems quickly and I developed a logical methodology of approaching problems. I have been able to practice in the field for 50 years (much longer than my father did). I finally retired at age 70 and I am still working at age 76 years old as a technical writer. My father was forced to retire at age 62. I think investing the time and money for the degree made a huge difference in the quality of jobs I was able to qualify for and the length of time that I was allowed to practice my profession. After 50 years the courses that I took in vacuum tube design and the FORRTRAN programming at LSU are probably not all that useful today.

    • David: My dad was a computer engineer. Moving into the field in the sixties, he did well in the first wave. But in the mid-70s, he started hitting limits on opportunities.

      As a young adult, he rarely butted in my business or “told me what to do.” But one time I cited his success as a reason to drop out of college, he almost came unglued, scolded me, and made very clear that not having a degree (even a Liberal Arts degree) severely limited his opportunities within his network, made it impossible to get work outside his network. Watching people half as smart, half as motivated, and half as competent get ahead.

      Thankfully I too those lessons to heart.

    • I have a tube amplifier at home that I built in the late 1990’s. There are a number of people who work with “glass audio” – my dad, now in his late 70’s gave me his old tube tester. I find studying tube circuits to be helpful even in my digital work – it’s just another kind of active device like transistors and MOSFET’s. Understanding the screen grid and the suppression grid, for example, is a great way to learn about the physics of electronic devices. Different than solid state, I love working with tube circuits and simulating them in LTSpice. I’m also a ham (Extra class). I grew up fixing televisions – mostly tube type.

  10. Since the writer is in IT, look at the four-year degree as a certification.

  11. For every single time someone brings out the ‘Gates and Zuckerberg didn’t go to college’ playbook, there are 100,000 of these stories.

    Hyperbole mine.

    Bottom line – the choices we make have impact now and in the future. With the plethora of online and distance learning opportunities available today, stop reading what you want to hear (about Gates) and get this roadblock knocked down.

    Absolutely, approach the company about them funding you to go back – you will find out where you REALLY stand, too. Dont be surprised if you get the degree, and still don’t get the Director job – but then you can leave.

    • @VP SALES: Absolutely, approach the company about them funding you to go back – you will find out where you REALLY stand, too.

      You’re always pretty pithy. That’s a great one.

  12. Not having a degree brings up the question of the value having a college degree. My observation is that the value of a Bachelor’s degree degrades over time. Having a BA/BS from 20 years ago is almost worthless. However, maintaining the degree with professional courses or a MS is worthwhile and shows a commitment to your profession. There are few schools where a BA/BS as a terminal degree is sufficient.

    • I agree with you, Jonathan. I got my BS in Computer Science in 1989, before I started my career, and it was fantastic. However, I naively believed that I was done with my education. Don’t get me wrong, I have learned a ton of other things, and new technologies along the way like web programming and business analysis and project management best practices. But that was the end of my formal education. My degree is clearly nothing more than a box-checking exercise for HR departments now, and I’ve been told that I shouldn’t be so proud of having a 30-year old degree. It’s still one of the most valued degrees by businesses, but simply because I earned it about 30 years ago, people are not at all impressed.

      It wouldn’t be so bad if the HR departments were simply honest and described it as a box that must be checked for mid-senior positions and management (and accepted a degree from any institution).

  13. I have a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering (BSEE) which I earned 5 years after I graduated high school (I was in the cooperative education program). I worked for a few years in that field as both a hardware and software engineer, and then I went back to school full-time to earn my Master of Music degree (in organ performance and church music). I even worked full-time for 5 years as a music director – yes, a management position. Fast forward several years, and I am working for a company that reimburses employees for degree work, so guess what? Yes, at age 52, i’m planning to become a student again!

    A world-class university about 100 miles from me offers an online master’s degree – 9 courses over 9 quarters, and the last one is a final project. I’ll go to campus as least 2 times during the quarter to take the midterm and final exams. Also, I live within walking distance to a university in the same system, so I can use its resources. (The university in walking distance does not cater to working professionals – the electrical engineering master’s degree there is solely for full-time students.)

    So why do I want a degree? After all, I’m still paying for my last master’s degree that I no longer use (there just isn’t much call for cathedral musicians). When it comes right down to it, this new degree is not so much for my company (even though they are paying for most of it). This degree is for ME.

    That’s right, the degree I want to earn is for ME and MY sense of accomplishment. Also, I am trying to keep both mind and body active. I plan to work way beyond a normal retirement age. Before you tell me that I will probably be forced into retirement just look at some of the leaders of US government (like them or not) – one senator from my state is in her 80’s and plans to run for another term – we have a President who is the oldest person to ever take office – and a supreme court justice well into her 80’s who does not plan on retiring any time soon. In addition, I have a friend who runs his own company in his 70’s. He has a number of health issues, but he says running this company keeps him alive. (In fact, he founded his company as a way of dealing with his health issues that he first had as a young man – well into his 70’s, he is still able to drive and run his company.)

    While I seem to have gone off topic, bear with me. It is very exciting to be working on a master’s degree with a world class university. My children are in sixth and tenth grades, and I think they will enjoy seeing their Dad going to school and dealing with studying.

    Learning should be life long. Whether in school or not, keep learning. PS: While I no longer officially “use” my master’s degree in music, it is one program that helped develop my mind. When I returned to engineering, after a few year of experience I got really good in my field. Music uses many terms we use in electrical engineering (frequency, octaves, harmonics, the Fourier [overtone] Series).

    By the way, don’t let anyone tell you that electrical engineering is a declining field. The part of my job I enjoy most is that to make a change in my design, it’s a matter of doing so with a soldering iron or a text editor. Remember also that for software to run, you have to have something to run software on with sufficient power. For that reason, my current company got excited when they saw that I have analog and microwave experience. I also know people in their 60’s and 70’s who are getting jobs.

    In spite of all the changes in technology, so much has not changed including Ohm’s Law and the mathematics of Digital Signal Processing.

    • Your last sentence reminds me of a stray bit of silliness. My local school district explained it was going to wait a year or two to buy new math books (several grades had NO math books) until “the newest versions are released.”

      Hmmmm. Waiting for the newest math.

  14. A couple of things: I got my degree in 1984 from a distance school (Regents External Degree Program) — the least known, least expensive, member of the New York university system, which has changed its name to be Excelsior now. It doesn’t even have a campus so I never had to set foot on it…basically it’s a bureaucracy, but it’s fully accredited, has a degree in IT (and really, your degree could be in basket weaving and it would have the same payoff in this situation), has existed since 1876 (under a variety of names). It took me 6 months from the time I decided to get a degree to the time I had a degree and it was positively inexpensive….not “reasonably priced” “inexpensive”. It’s a course of action I recommend.

    Second: If these people are such slaves to bureaucracy, why hasn’t your C-level boss explained to HR who makes sure they get paychecks? I’m not generally in favor of throwing one’s weight around, but sheer stupid deserves forceful explanation of who ranks where on what ladder.

    • @ Katie:

      You nailed the problem square on the head: The LW’s company has given over the entire hiring, performance review and promotion operation of the company over to HR, which now tells them how to do business.

      If possible, the LW should finish off a degree. For sure, he should brush off the resume because this company has started filling out their death certificate.

  15. College degrees predict nothing (I have three of them and parts of two others), and three professional certifications (which predict slightly more). Today’s college graduates can’t write a coherent sentence, critically think, etc. Particularly those with useless majors in the “X Studies” arena. Having said that:
    The EEOC takes the position that unless a college degree is a bona fide occupational qualification for the job/role, it cannot be required (think: engineer – a degree is typically required; think about any role for which a degree is required for a license – doctor, lawyer, etc.) – that’s permissible of course. Otherwise, your HR department (and I’m in HR) is useless. If your organization won’t help you obtain a degree (and I agree with other posters here that you should get one for all of the reasons listed), find an organization that will.

    • @Michael: Google’s VP of HR (actually called something else), Laszlo Bock, reported a while ago that the company did a Huge Data analysis of job interviews and success on the job.

      The correlation between interviews and success at work was zero.

      A person’s degree was a bit of a predictor, but only within a few years of graduation.

      What’s shocking about all the debate about degrees in HR circles is that it distracts from the real question: How does a company figure out whether someone can do a job now and in the future?

      Modern HR prefers not to deal with that.

  16. The degrees I have so far have taught me how to think. There are many reasons to get a degree, but the best reason I can think of: Because you really want one.

  17. Personally, I don’t think this IT Manager needs a degree, as he has proven capabilities. However, in this day and age, it is best for professionals to have a college degree. Western Governors University is highly reputable and started as a way for people working full-time to get a degree in a reasonable time for a reasonable cost. All classes are online. I work in healthcare and they offer nursing undergrad and graduate degrees, along with many degrees in business and IT.

    There are many options available now for working adults. Even community colleges offer online, night, and weekend classes. In addition, if an employer wants a college degree, they will usually pay for part or all of the education. Just buckle down and get the degree!

    • Like the letter writer, I was stuck at my pay grade because of a lack of degree and I was able to get my degree from WGU in under a year. And since the tuition is reasonable, my employer’s tuition reimbursement program covered the whole cost. I had been working in my field for years, I knew most of the materials and could complete my classes quickly.
      I’m starting on a Masters program now because it it cheaper than taking the individual certifications that are included in the MS program.

  18. There are plenty of jobs I had that didn’t care if I had a college degree or not. I didn’t get paid more or get more opportunities. They cared if you did your job well. Yes, college taught me a lot of things, bit it isn’t a guarantee for success in this world anymore. Some jobs call for a college degree but then the salary is only $35k a year. Backwards.

  19. On one hand, I feel sorry for the writer without the college degree. On the other hand, he seems to expect that life is FAIR. Get over it. Life is not fair. Stop whining and get a college degree.

    • I was raised by parents who were the first people in their families to go to college. What I heard in the 1970’s is that a college education is the key to success. The takeaway from my parents and grandparents (who didn’t go to college but were determined that their daughters would get degrees) is that it guarantees job security – especially with the generous pensions.

      Fast forward 40 years later and none of those guarantees exist anymore. No pension. No job security. On the other hand, I have been able to take risks that would have been unheard of back in the 1970’s.

      So again, don’t get a college degree for your employer, do it for yourself first. I don’t regret any education I acquired.

  20. I’ve been at both ends of the spectrum. I didn’t have a degree when I began my professional life, however I noticed how differently the degreed folks were treated. They were the decision makers. They were “in the room and at the table”. I knew I had to obtain those credentials in order to be taken seriously. I did just that. It took me a very long time. Over a span of 19 years I went from high school graduate to holding a Masters Degree. It has made a huge difference, not only by making it easier to get my foot in the door, but also by teaching me how to view other perspectives, disseminate information quickly and to work in diverse groups. I work with managers who are not “degreed” and they believe they are just as good at their jobs as everyone else, but behind closed doors the truth comes out. We all talk about how their lack of education shows up in their working relationships, writing skills and their development of co-workers. This has happened so much that I see why businesses require a degree for key positions. They cannot take a gamble on this point. (I’m not speaking about every individual or every situation but I myself understand the logic behind this requirement.)

    Once I decided I wanted to be at the table, I was willing to do what it took to get there. It’s the best decision I’ve made. My education is something no one can take from me. And it was worth every penny. Invest in yourself. The ROI is priceless.

  21. IMHO, this is just another phony hoop to jump thru in light of your 25 yrs with them. Saves them money in salary and keeps you off balance. My bachelor’s afforded me the opportunity to mature and develop social skills useful in my career which I find very important as a grown-up. Presumably, you are long past this stage in life (18-22) and you already learned not to steal your co-workers’ lunches out of the community fridge at work. Right?

    • Saves them money in salary and keeps you off balance.

      I tried to point out that it’s very important to suss this out about an employer. It’s often the hidden agenda.

      • Could see it playing out like this:

        “Oh, you need a degree to become a director at this company”

        A few years later…

        “I took classes at night and weekends and completed my degree, can we talk about that promotion?”

        “OH, you never stayed past 5pm for the last few years. That doesn’t show you’re a team player so we can’t promote you.”

  22. Just in time for this discussion is this article, “When higher education doesn’t mean higher pay”. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/when-higher-education-doesnt-mean-higher-pay/

    “Degree inflation is making America less competitive by shutting out workers who don’t have college degrees, according to a new study from Harvard Business School, Accenture and Grads of Life.”

    “‘One of the major causes, if not the leading cause, of degree inflation is an employer’s perception that workers without a degree are not capable of performing more of today’s middle-skills task,’ the report said. It calls for educational reforms to align high school curricula with the skills that employers need.”

    I’d say this is a broader problem than just employers who require a college degree, there are also employers who require previous experience in tasks, x, y and z and won’t hire someone without those specific skills and implying that they can’t be learned in a reasonable time frame.

  23. You’re confusing credentials with education. I have no more than a BA from an Ivy League school, and I work with some incredibly stupid people with online PhDs. They jumped through hoops, took their multiple-choice or short-answer tests, and completed their anemic theses – and remain mediocre. Luckily my company promotes based on ability rather than arbitrary proxies.

    Another point – since when does HR overrule directors or the CTO? HR serves the company, not vice-versa.

    • @Ron Skurat – Couldn’t agree more on both. From an HR guy. :-)

    • I was going to respond to your first post, but this one is more reasonable. No one got a real PhD answering multiple choice tests. Online ones, no doubt. I got some resumes from people with online PhDs, looked up their schools, and threw the resumes in the trash.
      Be aware that I know technicians who say exactly the same thing about people with bachelor degrees.

      • I’m planning to do an MSEE online – from my state’s flagship school. I will go on campus to take proctored exams. It is 100 miles from me. The right online courses can work well.

        • MS degrees on line make perfect sense. But I suspect my online PhD degrees are bogus. You have to learn an area in depth and learn how to do research, and work closely with a professor. After you pass your quals and orals you can finish your dissertation remotely, but not the entire process.

  24. I personally don’t think the LW needs a college degree. It sounds like he’s doing the same job as the others but doesn’t have the same title and probably isn’t getting paid the same rate. This is legal, as people who do not have college degrees are not considered a “protected class” for discrimination purposes. That is usually limited to race (race gets the highest level of protection), religion, ethnicity, sex (women are not a protected class the same way blacks are). So employers are free to discriminate against those without college degrees and not fear employment discrimination lawsuits or the government regulating them. I think the advice given to have an honest conversation with his boss re this matter is a good start. Of course, there is no guarantee that this company will look at his skills and how he helps the company earn a profit if all they are focused on is the bright, shiny object (college degree).

    Sometimes a college degree helps, and sometimes it doesn’t. If the real story is that HR and management are using the “college degree required” as a screening tool when they’re looking at entry-level applicants, or if they’re using it so they have fewer résumés to review, then that is a whole different matter. But if the job truly requires a college degree (either for the knowledge or the skills), then perhaps the LW should consider starting college. If the company isn’t fussy, he can start at a community college, then transfer. Many community colleges offer day, evening, and online courses year-round. Make sure any college you attend is regionally accredited (and this will help ensure that credits transfer), and if the program you want is a professional program, make sure it is accredited as well.

    Several people mentioned that online is cheaper than on campus, but I’ve found that isn’t necessarily the case. MOOCs may not cost anything, but then they’re often not part of programs’ curricula and many students are dismayed that the MOOCs they took won’t transfer towards a degree.

    Some colleges will give students academic credit for “life experience”. It will vary by college (some limit it to professional work experience, while others will give volunteer and stay-at-home mom experience the same weight) and program. Some online programs still have residency requirements, so before you sign up for an online program, make sure that the program is entirely online. Some programs that tout being “online” require students to come to campus for a semester (or two), a summer session (or two), and even for all exams.

    Lastly, if you’re employed full time, look at your employee benefits. Some employers offer whole or partial tuition remission/reimbursement (but they too may have requirements–you might have to be in a program that is related to your job, and if you’re looking to move up, then the benefit may not be applicable).

    UMass Amherst University Without Walls offers an online bachelor’s degree, and they do give academic credit for life experience. Online isn’t cheaper than on campus, but being online means you have more flexibility. http://www.umass.edu/uww/.

  25. One of the overarching facts that I see overlooked in all the comments is the only one that is pertinent in my opinion – right, wrong, or indifferent, the company has decided that a bachelors degree is necessary for becoming a director – in other words, a barrier to entry. Get it, and you qualify for promotion. Don’t, and you cannot advance.

    Other industries have these same barriers to entry. Particularly in the pharmaceutical industry, for a director level and above , you simply MUST have a PhD or an MD. MUST. No exceptions. I worked with a senior associate director with 15 years of experience; he could run circles around all the other licensed docs in running trials. But because he only had an M.S. degree, he had maxed out his advancement, maxed out his salary range (he once got a promotion of $1.00 because that was the highest $ max in his band) – all which could have been remedied with an advanced degree. And he felt it was too tough to get.

    Like Nick and others have said, an online degree, MBA, or even PhD is possible, and not even all that hard for the technologically astute, if you have the gift of gab on paper and are ready to kiss your weekends goodbye for 2 years. And yes, MANY companies HAVE to reimburse you for it, if it enhances your existing duties, because they have it in place for other (lower ranked) employees.

    So no more excuses, go for it, get the sheepskin and then demand what is rightfully yours.

    • @Hank: in all the comments is the only one that is pertinent in my opinion – right, wrong, or indifferent, the company has decided that a bachelors degree is necessary for becoming a director – in other words, a barrier to entry. Get it, and you qualify for promotion. Don’t, and you cannot advance.

      You’ve cut through it on this one. While degree or no degree is a good question to discuss, for the OP at this company all that matters is the company’s policy if he wants to stay and move up. That’s the choice that has to be made.

  26. 1. For a comprehensive review of the problem discussed here please see: The Atlantic The Case Against Credentialism – James Fallows 1985.

    2. @Lauren: The opinion you express clearly articulates the attitude of degree snobs. But, I respect the fact that you correctly highlight the political dimensions faced by those who don’t have degrees and are successful or put in high-level positions without them. The political problems you describe are real.

    3. For people who have built successful careers without degrees and there are many self included, there is a diminishing return for obtaining one. Consider for example when I entered the workforce in the late 80’s early 90’s only 3 in 10 people in the work world had degrees. Today that number has increased to 4 in 10.

    4. The primary driver of this demand is the education industry. The lifecycle is pretty simple: (1) Indoctrinate HR professionals to demand degrees for jobs that didn’t have them and don’t need them. This disqualifies huge swaths of the labor force. Even people who have been doing the very jobs that need to be done. (2) Offer them expensive training and education so they could get credentials to do the same jobs they were doing before but now for less money. This is a good racket for the HR and the education industry. HR can’t find the people that business needs. (Due to artificial barriers)and the education system gets to make money off people who now have to pay to play.

    5. For all of the suckers who thought getting a degree would be a ticket to easy street think again. Degrees don’t create jobs. A glut of degreed people will lead to lower salaries. Does nothing to address racial, age, gender discrimination in employment. (See: Highly educated, unemployed and tumbling down. Or 55 Unemployed and faking normal, or the 40 volumes of the Unemployment Stories.)

    6. One of the things I’ve learned over the course of my working career is the system is efficient for getting rid of people it doesn’t want and making a way for those that it does. This causes people to be confused because they’ve done what they were told but yet they still come up short. Therefore, I advise people to get an education because they want one and for no other reason.

    7. It is hard to win a rigged employment game:
    (a) No degree – Rejected
    (b) Degree – No experience – Rejected
    (c) Degree – Wrong one – Rejected
    (d) Degree – Wrong school – Rejected
    (e) Degree – Missing specific experience – Rejected.
    (f) Degree – Not a cultural fit – Rejected
    (g) Degree – (Too old) err overqualified – Rejected.
    (h) …

    At least with a degree you get to advance to the next round. Thanks but no thanks.

    8. If you can’t get what you want. You are talking to the wrong people.

    • As always, your ideas are intriguing to me, and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter :)

      Btw, another good site full of stories from those fooled into thinking “just get another degree” would help their situations is the “Over 50 and Out of Work” Facebook page, it’s mostly abandoned now but a few years ago there was a steady stream of daily posts from those who tried to “reinvent themselves” and got nowhere except thousands of $$ into debt.

      Re your points #6 and #7: IMO today’s job search experience = gaslighting,
      https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/getting-back-out-there/201610/10-ways-tell-if-youre-being-gaslighted

      • It’s not my job to drive the train,
        nor even ring the bell.
        But let the damn thing jump the track,
        and see who catches hell.

    • @Morpheus: I think you’ve designed an app for HR! All you need is the code. :-)

    • There’s a book called The Credential Society: A Historical Sociology of Education and Stratification by Randall Collins. I never got to reading it but it may be an interesting read to academic buffs.

      • It’s not having the credential not the piece of paper that matters so much as the learning to earn that credential. I am planning on doing an MS in electrical engineering online from a well known state flagship university that is 100 miles from me – I will go on campus for exams on Saturdays. (I can take the train, bus, and subway.). There is another campus in the same system within walking distance of where we live. Now having a degree from that university will be recognizable throughout the world. I looked at the classes – and they are hard! So I hope I have what it takes to get in and to earn my degree. Cost per course? Expensive (company will reimburse a good part of that). Sense of accomplishment? Priceless.

        • Yes and no. Hopefully anyone completing a degree in anything learns something and gets something out of educationally, but the letter writer needs a degree for a career reason – a promotion he or she wants.

  27. Nick said: “(Heads up: The Post requires a paid subscription to read more than a limited number of free articles.)”

    Easy workaround for that. In Chrome, just open a New incognito window, paste the URL of the article you want to read, and you’re done. Microsoft Edge calls it an InPrivate window. They don’t save the results of your browsing history or cache search results, so WaPo doesn’t know what you have read previously.

  28. Writer and anyone else: check out University of the People, the World’s first tuition-free accredited online university. They’re not totally free of course and they state that up front. They charge nominal fees to take the exam at the end of the course. They offer associate and bachelor’s degrees in three areas: business administration, health sciences, and computer science, and they offer a MBA in business administration. They have a YouTube channel and there’s been some news coverage of them, so do a search if you’re curious.

    https://www.uopeople.edu/

    They’re recognized by the U.S. Dept. of Education, so they’re legitimate. Ask your company if they will accept a degree from University of the People.

    I have a bachelor’s and a master’s degree and I enrolled in one of their degree programs and so far, I think they’re fine.

    • The problem is that I need an MS degree in electrical engineering – and that is not offered by that school. Also, there is the problem with the lack of name recognition.

      • Hi Kevin,

        The person who wrote in sounded like they just needed to get their “ticket punched” in something like business administration, which the University of the People offers. If they need a bachelor’s degree in something like management of information systems, they’d have to find another university. There are undergraduate online programs in MIS at non-profit universities.

        If I needed or wanted a degree in electrical engineering, yeah, I’m not sure if I would want to pursue that either from an entirely online university and from a newer university. It would just depend. I think for your situation, you need to consult with people in your field.

        The University of the People doesn’t pretend to be the education solution for everyone. No college or university realistically can.

        • At the same time if the University of the People did offer an MSEE degree I would seriously look into it and also verify that it had ABET accreditation.

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