A reader isn’t sure a new college degree or other education is going to guarantee a career or a job, in the October 6, 2020 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter.

Question

educationI’m thinking of making a significant shift that would lead to better pay and an overall more satisfying career in a different kind of job. To make the change I might be able to get away with some certification programs and continuing education. However, I’m also considering getting a master’s degree because that seems to be an important credential for “getting in.” Any approach I take will cost money and time, in some cases a lot of both! How do I decide which way to go?

Nick’s Reply

I’m going to tell you something that should be very obvious, but I don’t expect you’ve already considered it because our employment and education systems have brainwashed you. First, let’s get some basics out of the way.

Selling education by the pound

The education industry (make no mistake, it is an industry) goes to great lengths to market its product. The marketing strongly implies that the degree leads to the job. Students have learned to shop for degrees by the pound: a certification, a bachelor’s, a master’s. How much “great job and salary” do you want? People with specific jobs and careers in mind easily swallow the bait, hook, line and sinker.

A new college degree can be a very risky bet unless you’re aspiring to one of the “professions” which require rigorous training and credentials. I’m referring to the law, medicine, accounting, engineering and the like – although you could theoretically pass a Professional Engineer exam or pass the bar exam without going to school. (I didn’t say it would be easy!)

But you probably know new law school or engineering grads that can’t find work. Did they not buy enough education?

Who’s really paying for the education?

When you have a specific career goal in mind, the product you’re buying is not education or a degree. The real product is the job you want. This means one thing matters more than any other: What education does the employer want?

In other words, you should remember that who’s really paying for that degree (or certification) is the employer that hires and pays you for it.

Although in general a college degree means higher income, degrees may not be required for good incomes in every career — or even in the job you want. A good education is valuable for many reasons, and it can enhance a career (and your income) dramatically. But, don’t expect that getting a degree is going to guarantee you a better income or a better career.

Don’t expect an employer to buy the career promises a school sold you.

What to do

How a degree-less job seeker gets the job:
No College Degree, No Problem
Before you assume, for example, that you need an MBA in finance to get a job in investment banking, or a computer science degree to design software, consider who’s “paying” for that degree. Pick the industry, company and job you want. Then go talk to the relevant employers and people who do the work you want to do.

Ask them what sort of education is necessary, sufficient and useful. Thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars could hang on the answers.

I don’t mean you should read the academic “requirements” on the job description. Go talk with the hiring managers and people who already do the work you want to do. Discover the nuances. Get insight. Get insider advice.

You might even ask what kind of education pays off best when you apply for the job you want. Then pursue that education.

There’s still no guarantee of a job, but at least you’re partnering with the “other customer” that’s indirectly paying for your education.

Get past the marketing of education

Popular business magazines regularly run rankings that list the college degree programs (e.g., MBA) and schools that deliver the most bang for the buck. They list salaries and job titles obtained by graduates. Big deal. What they fail to discuss is all the other ways talented people can be successful. Many schools don’t prove that they really know what employers want.

If degrees were directly tied to jobs, schools would guarantee you job opportunities. Instead, they market the often nebulous relationship between a degree and a job.

Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t knock education. I believe a college education for its own sake can make most people smarter and better overall, if only for the broad exposure to knowledge, ideas, critical thinking and problem-solving tools it provides. We’ve all seen the surveys which show that, generally speaking, people with college degrees earn more than those without them. But, I really get bugged when schools and the media market “the relationship” between degrees, jobs and income.

Necessary and sufficient qualifications

Depending on the person and the situation, it’s not always clear that a degree (or yet another degree) is necessary. I’ve known many people, including law and medical school grads and freshly minted MBAs, who are disappointed that the degree they worked so hard to earn hasn’t gotten them a job or higher incomes. (See MBA Students Get Thrown Off Course in Bloomberg Businessweek.)

While a degree may be necessary, it may not be sufficient. That is, you need something more. That may be experience, apprenticeship or just an employer willing to take a chance on you.

Or, a degree may not be necessary if you have other qualifications that are sufficient.

Only the employer really knows.

Ask the employer

So, before you invest loads of time and money to get a degree, talk to people who do the work you want to do, and to their managers. We’re probably talking about several companies. Ask which credentials really matter to them and why. Which credentials would most likely pay off if you applied there for a job?

If you’re going to school because you want to learn for learning’s sake, that’s wonderful. But, if you’re investing in a degree to get ahead in your job, the ultimate customer of the education industry isn’t you — it’s the employer you go to work for.

I promised to tell you something very obvious. Before you invest in education or a degree, find out what education the employer wants.

What’s your experience with education, degrees and jobs? Have you been let down after investing in a degree (or an extra degree) that seemed to promise a job? What jobs really require a degree? Do you know any schools that do an exceptional job of preparing their students to actually get jobs?

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43 Comments
  1. My experience is that it is the employers who suffer from acute credentialism and are driving this credentials mania and inflation. The higher ed and vocational ed rackets are all too happy to provide but they’re not the drivers of this.

    The employers’ rampant credentialism is, in turn, a mechanical consequence of there being increasingly too many people for too few jobs, leading to higher expectations and a “let’s see how high you will jump for me” mentality.

    Lastly, you might ask employers but you might not get straight or credible answers and if you do enter the degree pipeline the answer might change by the time you graduate.

    A difficult situation all around, with no pat answers and remedies. Let’s face it: in the US the job market is heavily skewed towards employers (employment at will, zero-hour contracts, egregious non-competes, mandatory arbitration etc etc) and [would-be] employees will bear an increasing share of the burden of risk and adjustment.

    • @Olivier: All good points. Of special concern is the time lag between what employers say they want and what schools deliver. After I got a graduate degree in cognitive psychology at Stanford, I told my mentor — Gene Webb, a prof in the Biz School where I’d already taken courses — that I was considering getting an MBA next. He told me he’d help me get in, but asked why I’d want to do that. “I dunno. An MBA would give me a leg up on getting a good job,” I lamely explained.

      Then he explained that the GSB developed its courses based on trends in business — but that in the 2-3 years it took to develop a good course, the trends always changed, so the MBA program was always behind.

      I think the bigger problem is that the cooperation between academia and business is too tenuous. Some schools do it better than others.

      I think the fatal problem is that companies turn recruiting and hiring over to HR, which in turn pays third party database jockeys like LinkedIn, Indeed, and other algo-driven jobs sites to dumb the whole thing down. By the time a hiring manager and candidate connect, it’s worse than a blind date.

      People can’t be reduced to keywords, yet that’s the foundation of it all. Credentials are easily turned into keywords.

    • Whenever I’ve asked, employers invariably want more education. But without really justifying why. Just a mindless assumption that more is better. Even where a BS is more than sufficient. It is beyond obvious too many kids are going to college now, and that in aggregate our workforce is already way overeducated for the available jobs. Much of what is driving this is the proverbial “skills gap” myth employers have been bleeting about for decades now, to distract from their own lack of investment in employee development, while expecting ideal workers to appear ready made out of the ether.

  2. Far too many employers have barriers to entry for specific levels of advancement, even if it has no bearing on the duties or skills of the position. In Big Pharma, it is rampant that for a Senior Director position, you must have an MS or MBA, and for Executive Director and higher you must have a PhD or MD. This is not just for physicians and scientists – I’m talking rank and file operatives in the support functions that are only peripherally involved with actual medical knowledge. Most absorb it on their own without actual schooling anyway.

    I once had a Senior Director reporting to me that was a pharma lifer and only had a Masters. He had been in the position for over 8 years, and was at the absolute top of his pay band. I begged him to go to an online school and get a PhD – it could have been in Art History for all that HR cared – but he just would not commit. His last pay raise was 0.25 dollars – not per hour, per YEAR, because he was maxed out in his pay band.

    Ridiculous? Of course, but HR and corporate stolidly held ground that this was all reasonable, fair and equitable.

  3. Two weeks ago I got a linked in message from a university saying “they had seen my profile and wanted to invite me to discuss whether I’d be a candidate for their MBA program.” They went on to say that a MBA from this allegedly prestigious university would enhance my career and increase my compensation.

    I’ve been a CFO for over 30 years. I’m at the top of my profession. I am a CPA (and a CMA – what a complete waste that was) but no MBA.

    So I messaged the recruiter at the school back that I wasn’t clear – were they asking me to be an instructor or a student? (The email was perfectly clear – I was intentionally poking at them.)

    Never heard another word from them.

    About 20 years ago I was interviewing for a CFO job and was asked “why didn’t you get an MBA” and I answered, truthfully, that I was already in a CFO job at the age of 25, making more than what new MBAs made at that time – why would I leave a great job, spend at least a year, more likely two, in school, forgo the wages, pay the tuition and living expenses, to get a degree offering compensation less than my current compensation. The hiring manager (Vice Chairman) looked at me, blinked a couple of times and hired me. Spent 8 years there, great job.

    Education is generally overrated, and your comments that it’s an industry is exactly right.

    • On a tangent, it should be a felony-level infraction for these LI recruiters to code these worthless scraping algorithms and then mailbomb everyone.

      I get daily inMails with the “I reviewed your profile and you’d be great for this position” for VP level positions in fields in which I am not certified, have never worked a single job in, and am totally unqualified to manage. I even had one moron send out the inMails without remembering to code it to insert the actual candidate’s name so it was addressed to “{insert name}”. I called them on it and got a terse “thanks” back.

      Of course, as LI is making serious money from these yokels, they will never sanction them no matter how often you complain.

      • @Hank: I encourage every job seeker to send such suggestions to their federal legislators.

      • Twice in the last month or so, I’ve gotten spam^WInMails from recruiters who were really excited about my extensive background and wished to talk to me about a position that would be right up my alley. I’d reply back offering a date/time when we could talk and, both times, was ghosted. I noticed that, in both cases, someone anonymously visited my LI profile the morning of the day we were to talk. I can’t be 100% sure but I’d bet quite a lot that those profile visitors were the recruiters who’d InMailed me. LinkedIn keeps sending me emails to encourage me to “upgrade” to become a Premium member. The only reason I’d even consider it would be to be able to pull back the curtain on those anonymous profile viewers. And “Premium” doesn’t offer that feature. LinkedIn’s utility continues to take a nosedive.

        Like you said: “There oughta be a law”.

        • @Rick: That’s a good test. When a “recruiter” solicits you so effusively, invite them to talk on the phone. Ask for their number. (Don’t give yours.) 95% will ghost you. On to the next!

          For anyone that thinks this could cost you an opportunity, let me show you why it’s no opportunity if the recruiter doesn’t pass this test. You’re worth 15-25% of your starting salary to the recruiter if they can place you. That is, if you make $60k, the recruiter makes up to $15,000 on you. What recruiter would risk that much money by not talking to you?

          95% of “recruiters” aren’t worth spit. It behooves you to test each one that comes along.

          • even more fun is to ask for their resume and a couple of references to people they placed.

    • @Albert: “were they asking me to be an instructor or a student?”

      That says it all. My compliments!

      • A friend of mine considered getting an EE degree and asked the University about waiving a computer class and told he would have to take it. The previous year they had tried to hire him to teach it!

        • @ Dale: That’s the epitome of bureaucratic devilry!

  4. Take note that, love him or hate him, Elon Musk has publicly stated that degrees are a waste of time. I’m degreed…after picking at it for 19 (non contiguous) years. I got it because a boss told me that the company had moved the educational bar so high I couldn’t get my own job if I were to apply to it. And also my wife pointed out via the GI Bill I could actually makes some money by going. But I didn’t need it.

    I’m all for degrees IF…you personally seek one for self satisfaction or something that maps into a passion of yours..or as noted in some fields it’s deeply embedded in a profession & there’s some signs one actually gains needed knowhow to partake in a chosen career. I’m all for my brain surgeon having a relevant educational foundation. I’m all for education, but it’s just a ticket to play, not a guarantee of results.

    But there’s knowhow..and there’s education. not the same thing. Knowing how is all about what this blog has often noted…it’s about the ability to do the job.

    I’ve been through the whole route in my career..in hi tech companies long enough to experience this evolution…at 1st in a company’s infancy, where need & ability were the drivers. No one gives a hoot what your education is, if you’re a rock star.

    I lived in a software development world in computer companies. If you had the know how to rapidly cut quality code. that’s all that counted. You didn’t even have to clean and civil. Then a 2nd stage appears where qualitative credentialism creeps or jumps in. And next thing you know a company founded and populated by mere non-greed mortals now demands a degree. At times with bias to particular universities. And full well knowing that said universities are way behind the technical pace of industries. Teaching Obsolete languages and processes inside programs laid out by department heads who’ve never been really involved in engineering products.

    This change is what I call the HR Factor…who seem to sell the idea to executives or boards that a company’s success to date is an illusion. Can’t possibly be, because the success waters have been muddied by the great unwashed who lack degrees. Got to fix that. Mandate degrees and “improve” the educational demographics. And move the newbies up the ranks “improving” the managerial quality. Again this is in environments brought to life by people who had no time for getting a degree. They created pioneering companies, technologies, processes. As they polish their HR halo, they will humbly assure you that they don’t make hiring decisions, that’s the purview of the Hiring manager. Saying so while hobbling the hiring manager’s hands by decreasing size of the hiring pool.

    As some noted, the degree can be in anything. Just have a degree which highlights the hypocrisy of it.

    We hiring managers (including those blessed with a degree) had a saying regarding degrees. Bullshit, More Shit, Piled Higher and Deeper. People are people who all go through rites of passages via different paths. For some it is college. They need it, benefit from it, gain the confidence they need to move forward. Others don’t need it, they know what they want & are good at.

    Hiring managers under these constraints learned to leverage the one tool left to protect their hiring latitudes..that being when push came to shove..HR will avoid revenue related accountability..where a hiring manager will dig in and declare “I NEED this person NOW, or we’ll not be able to hit our target. And it’ll be on you. So you have dispensations appear like “any degree will do.” or they’ll simply back off hoping for a “I told you so” if that person falls on their ass.

    I’m a (elisted) Marine. And there was a saying…”Beware the enlisted man, though illiterate, they are crafty and sly and bear watching at all times.” The hiring manager in restrictive hiring environments can be creative. For example, I had a really really sharp tech on my team who was impressively smart, energetic, and creative. His tacit job was to help in our computer lab. I quietly assigned him to work with some heavy lifting developers in a new project. He was to develop, not just the tests, but the process of testing for this project (a new computer language). Did a marvelous job. Developed Great street cred, rapport etc.with the developers Somehow HR got wind of this and I had a visit from the HR Manager who informed me that my tech was doing an engineering job and this was frowned on. Techs couldn’t do this. I thanked him, noting I’d fix it…and set out to promote this knuckle dragging non degree person to junior engineer. And taking HR’s worship of degreeded-ness enlisted the support of those heavy breathing Phds and Master degree people he supported and worked with.(aka as “Fellows” Who were amazed that he was a tech. I told them I wanted to promote him to engineer and asked for their support & help. I asked them to write me memos attesting to his ENGINEERING expertise…. Their respect level was such their opinions were akin to certification & uncontestable. Above HR’s paygrade.
    …I got him promoted.

    Ability to do the job..beats out mere education. Reverse that at your peril

    • @Don: I’d like to grab something you alluded to without saying it. A degree is a signifier. It’s shorthand for “smart, qualified, trustworthy, certain, incontestable” and “hirable.” Trouble is, it’s a weak signifier. Nonetheless, HR, employers, workers, managers, most people accept it as a form of exchange, like money. Everyone agrees that a degree makes someone worth X or Y or Z or whatever we say.

      Worse, HR uses this signifier to avoid using other, more time-consuming ones, like assessing whether a person can do a job or learn quickly.

      So a degree has value and means something, but when it’s given too much weight, it becomes an excuse for more rigorous decision making — and everyone gets hurt. It’s worth using when making judgments, but it gets too much weight because we get lazy.

      • Agree, good point. the belief is it’s a Hiring risk reducer, and it’s not

    • “Can’t possibly be, because the success waters have been muddied by the great unwashed who lack degrees.”

      Even worse is when the hiring companies snobbishly provide a list of Universities from which they’d prefer you received your degree. I’ve seen that a few times in recent months. (How’s that search for candidates going?)

    • I wish there were more people like you Don Harkness. You went to bat for a competent, quality employee. You did not roll over with that HR bureaucrat know nothing.

      • it was relatively easy. Hanging HR on its HR Petard. You can’t have it both ways. HR can’t extoll the value of a degree and ignore the assessments of highly degreed walk-on-water engineers.

  5. Compared to the European market in my field, American realities are steemed deep in credentialism (which was a culture shock for me). I am in a very specific creative niche and the skillset is not taught at schools (barely nascent now in 2020). My former boss in NYC would demand I “hire from the best schools” which I have ignored for my own teams – I need people who either know how to do the job via apprenticeships or show predisposition and creative interest for our field (and an iron a$$).
    However, now trying to switch jobs myself, I find myself automatically rejected because I don’t have a degree from a US-based institution. Although I do have an MA and paid for it to be recognized by one of the two licensing institutions in North America, it still doesn’t matter.
    I am considering investing in another *MA* but the irony is that the professors ask me “why do you want to get into our program if you’re already doing the job?”. There’s no secret that the school is not for the skillset, it’s just another brand to have on my resume. Which to me is a waste of money but I am coming to realize are just rules of the game.

  6. Nick hit it right on. What is your ROI=Return of investment. Sometimes it pays in the moment instant with the current market value of the job and sometimes it has passed and sometimes the market it is up in coming. Markets determine this. Prime example Block-Chain technology aka Cryptocurrencies. Learning is never a bad thing but spending too much on it is.

  7. Shortly after graduating from college I had a job interview. Because I had no job related experience, the hiring manager requested a copy of my college transcripts. After reviewing it he gave me an incredulous look followed by the question, “How can you go from social and academic probation to making the dean’s list?” I shrugged my shoulders and calmly replied, “Moments of sobriety.” I did not get that job. Two weeks later in desperation I applied for a job at the local small newspaper. The publisher asked where I got my journalism degree. I informed him, I didn’t get a journalism degree. He then asked, why I was applying for a job I had no experience or training in. My answer, “I’m broke and need a job.” He then asked how many words per minute I could type. After I said 70 without mistakes, he told me to show up the next day. That led to a 21 year career in print journalism, including 8 years freelancing in investigative journalism. This coupled with years in business including owning 7 different ones including manufacturing, wholesale, and retail. Whenever a job applicant attempted to impress me with his/her degree I grilled them on their experience level that too often revealed their limited ability to effectively do the job requirements. Most of the rejects had the same issue, lack of critical thinking.
    A truism in the so-called higher education field is inertia will get you a degree but the marketplace provides your education. My “moments of sobriety” became extended the more I got involved in the marketplace and found when I really used “my smarts” the dividends were very pleasing. Let’s have a toast to experience, critical thinking, and the marketplace.

    • What I am gathering from all of these stories here and in real life is that if you need to have an advocate inside the company to open these doors for you that are usually opened by degrees or “the right” school.

      • @Juliette: Close, but it’s more than that — and actually more hopeful for you. You need to create or develop an advocate inside the company. It takes work, but it can work nicely.

        This should give you some ideas. Judging from your experience, you should be off to the races! I’d love to know the outcome if you try what I suggest.

        • Thanks, Nick. I’ve been working on this. Will post here once it works, ha!

  8. A degree is mearly an opportunity to learn something useful.

    When I am hiring engineers, I find that there is a huge difference between candidates, even from the same university. Some have taken the opportunity to learn everything they can and the others have merely passed all their exams to get the degree.

    It should be easy to guess which ones I hire.

    • I’ve been working in industry for almost 43 years, and I’ll submit it also depends on “smaller second tier practical engineering schools and curriculum”. I’ve seen first hand (as did my late father, a journeyman machinist with two patents with Honeywell, who served a United Steel Workers Union apprenticeship post WWII) more than one graduate M.E. from a big prestigious engineering school who had trouble pouring it out of a boot!!
      Not ever body is going to be designing missiles for General Dynamic, or working in R&D at Lawrence Livermore Labs. There’s going to be a strong continued need for practical engineers in the “grungy dirty manufacturing industries”.

  9. We talk here about what the “employer” wants. BUT the employer is not a single entity. There’s a recruiter, there’s HR, there’s the line manager and then an executive who perhaps makes the final decision. Recruiters and HR have their ‘non-negotiable’ requirements (wish-list) formulated perhaps with little understanding of what actually is needed to succeed in the role, is it even up-to-date? All the way through each individual will have their own set of priorities.

    Trying to appease them all is impossible. As Nick says, 1) find out from the people who matter what they value, and then 2) try to skip past the non-sense and go straight to the one who lies in bed at night worrying about getting the actual job done.

  10. My employer recently posted a position basically doing the same thing I and my supervisor do. (We need the additional capacity due to growth.) The job ad prefers graduate education that neither I nor my supervisor have. I suppose it might come in handy in a few areas but those would not be anything I or my supervisor couldn’t do with a little time and research. My supervisor has questioned this (he didn’t write the ad) but senior management is sticking to it.

    I wonder how many good candidates we’re missing because someone doesn’t have the advanced degree and says, “Eh, probably not worth it as I don’t meet all the qualifications.” Sure, people always say to ignore that and apply anyway, but many people make a risk/reward calculation when deciding whether to take the time to apply. The “casual” candidate who’d actually be great is probably passing us up.

    On the flip side, I hear we’re getting candidates with advanced degrees but no real world experience that we need.

    • as I noted…you & your supervisor are discovering that like me & my supervisor..without a degree we couldn’t apply for our own jobs Your supervisor shouldn’t be surprised to see a degreed newbie, with less experience and far less contribution to the company blow past him or her.

      And look around & see if it’s happening elsewhere in the company…you may be watching the pig getting lipsticked…ready to sell with a nice story about the terrific educational base as one of the selling points

  11. One of the greatest fallacies of our time is the “you need a degree from a university” to get anywhere in life. NO, you need marketable SKILLS, including basic soft skills!
    What you get from a state university today (maybe less in the STEM degrees) is a steady diet of social justice indoctrination, insurmountable debt, poor cognitive training, selling bills of goods (and outright LIES) to well meaning students, and an engorged environment of nominal-inept individuals with inflated salaries and perks, who can’t be terminated (think tenure), short of doing something grossly egregious.
    Case in point, I know a young lady who graduated from a pricey university with a degree in Art History, and nearly $50,000 in student loan debt. She was 25 years old at the time, was waiting tables, and was being squeezed by Sallie Mae to make the minimum payments on her student loan. She went through a 9 month welding program at a local CC that was cheap and covered mostly by Pell Grants. She got an unglamorous and dirty, but good paying job, as a maintenance welder, worked all the OT she could get, and went full bore Dave Ramsey. Within 3 years, she paid off her student loans.
    Her hipster artsy friends mocked her for working in a “blue collar trade”, but as she said “I’m employed, and most of you are not, and I paid off my student loans”. Enough said.

    • And perhaps she’ll find that fine welding…is an art & will nicely compliment her artistic interests

  12. A for=profit university has spent a lot of advertising dollars promoting the idea that you will the job you want if you get one of their degrees. RUN. AWAY!

    I had the misfortune of working as a contractor at that piece of crap organization for more than a year. (I had been laid off and unemployed for a while: it was a question of keeping the roof over my head) This place is among the “more respected” for-profits but is nothing more that a means to separate people from their money (especially GI Bill money) in exchange for a nearly worthless degree.

    • Let me guess, Phoenix University?
      Vatterott (now bankrupt and closed) was another for profit “hook and crook money clipper”.
      In my city, hired adjuncts through Manpower with dubious credentials. Preyed on folks in the the urban core and veterans.18 month technical programs left students with $30,000-$80,000 in student loan debt, while they started at jobs for $14-$16 per hour. Fired all the instructors, and just locked the doors and turned out the lights. The CC where I adjunct at night, along with two other local CC’s, allowed Vatterott students to finish their respective programs, gave them credit for their phoney baloney unaccredited classes, and at a fraction of the cost! Criminal in my book!
      DeVry, Wyotech, Universal Technical Institute, Grantham, National American University, etc. should all be shut down!!

  13. @Patricia: What’s the name of the school?

  14. As a black man who grew up in the inner city, but who cannot perform athletic feats or create and perform song lyrics, a college degree was supposed to be the way that I wouldn’t have to be poor as an adult the way I was as a child, so I am both disappointed and offended that even after getting a master’s degree, I cannot land the type of employment that would literally change my life financially the same way that someone hitting the lottery might have their life changed.

    The fact that I am smart is the aspect of my personality that I am most proud of and that I put the most value in, and after hearing for my entire childhood that being smart will translate to getting paid I am still waiting for my money.

  15. I don’t know if this should be multiple comments, but I have a lot to say about higher education from a number of different angles, whether it’s the actual courses that take place in college (GenEd specifically), whether it’s how college graduates are treated by employers (often devaluing the education we spend four or more years earning, acting as if anyone could have done it), or the anti-intellectualism I often hear from people who resent college graduates (the opposite of how employers often view us)

    I recently had a comment I posted on Jeff Selingo’s LinkedIn post about his new book on college admissions go viral (I tried to hyperlink it but I don’t think it lets me). The biggest disagreements came from opposite sides. On one hand there are people who believe (which I don’t) that community colleges and trade schools should be promoted above or in place of universities. But you can’t learn to be a doctor or lawyer at community college, so we still need universities. On the other hand, there were people who were against what I believe about getting rid of GenEd or the core curriculum, because they don’t normally relate to jobs. They believe that such courses are needed to create well-rounded students. I could go point by point as to how these GenEd classes don’t necessarily open the minds of students (for example having to take English and history courses that reinforce the Eurocentrism that is taught in K-12 literature and social studies classes), but the schools can still offer the courses, just don’t require them for graduation.

    There are two sides of the same coin that I see. On one hand, you could spend years taking difficult courses, stretching your intellectual capabilities, maybe barely passing because you chose to take challenging courses, only to be told by employers that your degree is “useless” because you didn’t spend the last four years learning the specific job skills to perform the specific job they’re hiring for. On the other hand you have the adult version of calling people “nerds” and “eggheads,” basically saying “Yes, you can solve those difficult math problems, but look at how much money I make driving a truck.” Everyone doesn’t want to drive a truck regardless of how much it pays.

    I think that most people judge college graduates off of the ones they know of who drank an partied their way through school, but even though more people are going to college now, they don’t all graduate (which is why “some college” is a phrase). A lot of those “useless degrees” are hard to earn, and if someone can earn them, they will have no problem learning whatever job it is you think they need specific coursework to be qualified for.

    I grew up watching my mother go to a job where she had to do shift work, wear a uniform, and be on her feet all day. Most of the other adults who I knew what their jobs were did the same type of work. I went to college to not have to do that type of work myself, to be able to sit at a desk, and make enough money where I can choose where I live instead of living where I can afford. So while there are people resenting me and others like me because I am smart, or pointing and laughing because their construction job pays more than what many college graduates earn, I on the other hand am angry because among other things, I got a degree that has a specific career path that it prepares you for, and I can’t even get interviews for jobs I went to grad school to learn how to do (as opposed to a “useless” degree that has no definitive career path associated with it).

    I can’t speak to people not being able to get the jobs they currently have were they have to apply now because the job now requires a degree, but I can speak to having to get a job where I’m not using my intellect and the skills that I developed in college. I can speak to being a National Merit Scholar, a Dean’s List member, and a master’s degree holder, but still having to live in my mother’s house in a relatively low-income neighborhood because employers are discounting my high potential to succeed, which I have proven over and over in classroom settings, and denying me the chance to realize that potential in positions that would compensate me at such a level that I could create the type of life that I could have only dreamed of living back when I was a child.

    • “On one hand, you could spend years taking difficult courses, stretching your intellectual capabilities, maybe barely passing because you chose to take challenging courses, only to be told by employers that your degree is `useless’ because you didn’t spend the last four years learning the specific job skills to perform the specific job they’re hiring for.”

      That’s a problem (a huge one, IMHO) whereby companies think that colleges/universities exist to provide a trade school type education in order to allow them to avoid training employees. I’m not sure when this attitude took hold—I suspect it was in the later ’80s or in the ’90s. It used to be that a college degree was an indicator that you had learned how to learn. Nowadays, it’s seen by the business world as an expensive training ground supplying them with exactly the experience they need today. Can’t hit the ground running? No job for you.

    • So you were sold a bill of goods. So was I. So we’re many others. Some of the onus has to be placed on the individual. Academia is like ten-dollar crack whores, they’re more than happy to part you from your money, and put you deeply into debt. The juice isn’t worth the squeeze, and a worthless degree is just that; worthless.
      Sometimes one has to work unglamorous or uninteresting jobs. But you focus on other things outside the job for fulfillment. Employers have no interest in your happiness or well being.
      The guy in construction who makes more than you with some nebulous degree is not living the dream either. He’s outside in the elements, he faces all kinds of safety hazards, and invariably, his body is going to give out when he reaches his 40s. Plus, he’ll have to work with rough and irritable people, and Joe college high brows, and modern Millies (if he’s in search of a mate) will look down on him.
      Anyone who believes an expensive college degree is going to land you a good career path, or success in life, is incredibly naive.

      • So what’s the solution for those of us who are highly intelligent and highly capable, but don’t have a job or salary that matches our ability?

        Everyone who has ever met me knows that I am smart and is just as baffled as to why I’m not employed. Why is it so hard to get the people with the jobs they’re trying to fill to see the same thing that literally everyone else who has ever met me can figure out in minutes?

  16. Good comments, everyone! I think there are several things going on that are contributing to this. Sometimes, the degree requirements are justified, sometimes they’re not. Whether you get a degree of any kind will depend upon what kind of job you want and what employers and states are requiring. For example, if you want to be a doctor, a lawyer, a nurse, then you’ll be required both by the states in which you plan to work and by prospective employers to meet educational minimums. For doctors and lawyers, this will mean not only a bachelor’s degree but also advanced degrees (for these fields, professional degrees) in addition to passing the state’s licensure requirements (state medical boards, USMLE, state bar exams). Doctors will spend years in residency, generally 3 or 4-7 years, depending upon the specialty AFTER earning their M.D. or D.O. degree. Residency is their job training. Lawyers don’t have residencies, and for a long time employers expected to have to train lawyers but today, with law firms pushing back/resisting training new hires, law schools are requiring internships so when students graduate, they have some experience and won’t require as much training.

    At one time, many jobs didn’t require higher education; people were apprenticed for x number of years, then were able to work in those fields. You learned on the job from someone who was already doing that kind of work. But I think that today, many employers are looking for ways to outsource training new hires, and have decided that a college degree equals job training, when in fact it does NOT. At one time, even as recently as the 1980s, employers knew this and expected to have to train you. What having a college degree, as one employer told me, signed to him was that the person could learn and was able to stick it out, see a project or plan through (though I doubted this as whether a kid finishes college often has as much to do with his parents’ income and whether they graduated from college). It told him that the new hire was able to learn and thus trainable, teachable. But he didn’t expect you to know how to do the job from day one. Today, too many employers expect colleges to do their industry specific and employer specific job training for them so they don’t have to do it. This doesn’t make sense–the best any college can do is provide broad, general education and teach good critical thinking, problem solving, and communication skills (and reading and reading comprehension, though students should have learned this in K-12). That is where I think the disconnect is.

    Some professions will require education–doctors, lawyers, nurses, engineers, librarians, social workers, teachers to name a few. Some professions will require some kind of post-secondary education but no degree–electrician, automotive repair, dental hygienist, occupational and physical therapist, plumber, beautician to name a few.

    Some of the educational requirements for jobs don’t make any sense. I’ve seen ads for receptionist jobs that require a bachelor’s degree. Why? No college with which I am familiar offers courses in how to be a receptionist or how to answer the phone!
    Years ago, you didn’t need a degree to work in IT, and today I’m seeing more and more degree creep, meaning that the jobs are requiring degrees in computer science or IT, and I’m seeing degree creep in the level of degree–at one time, an associate’s would have been enough, and now I’m seeing more and more requiring bachelors’ degrees. I think this is in part due to employers not being willing to train new hires, but also due to the changes in the field.

    I have a cousin who works in IT, no degree. He went to college intending to become an engineer, but dropped out and fell into computers at a time when employers didn’t require a degree to get a job and were willing to train people. He learned everything he knows on the job. But he says that has changed–and today his current employer won’t even look at you unless you have a bachelor’s degree in computer science or IT, and then the employer will complain that the new hires still don’t know how to do the job. He was fired with others who lacked the degree, but then hired back as contractors when the employer realized that someone had to show the new college grads what to do. And yet he said that he can’t get his job as a regular employee (meaning with higher pay and benefits) without a degree. But the recent college grads can’t do the job either, even though they have the degree. He agrees that it is insanity, but he’s powerless to change the culture and the mentality.

    Another example I can give you is nursing. If you wish to be a nurse, you need to take and pass yiour NCLEX exam, and in order to be eligible to take that exam, you need a minimum of two years of college/associate’s degree (the requirements will vary by state, so some states will let you take it with an associate’s degree while others will require a bachelor’s degree). In my state, you can take it with an associate’s degree, but then face the challenge of getting a job. The nursing students I knew at a community were dismayed to learn that their associates’ degrees in nursing and passing the NCLEX wasn’t enough to get a job; they were finding that despite their licensure, employers wouldn’t even look at them unless they had a minimum of a BSN (Bachelor of Science in Nursing) plus passing the NCLEX. You would think that passing the NCLEX would have been enough, but it wasn’t, and hasn’t been for some time. And you’d think that community colleges would be telling their nursing students that doing their nursing pre-reqs and a two year nursing program at a community college is a good way to begin and to save money, but that if they want to work as RNs, they’ll need more education not because the universities require it but because employers (hospitals, doctors, etc.) require it.

    I think the advice to seek out contacts with the employers (not in HR) and get the real skinny on the job requirements, including educational requirement. Find out from the hiring manager and from others–if you learn that the hiring manager wouldn’t be considered qualified for the job he holds if he were to apply for it today because he lacks the right education, that tells you something.

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