Is that College Degree Really Necessary?

The recent stories about Ernst & Young deemphasizing college performance as a hiring criterion and the even-more-important case of CapGemini now hiring future consultants right out of high school has gotten more employers wondering about whether focusing on hiring college grads — in most cases the best ones — is really worth it.

There is no doubt that college grads on average are much more able than those who don’t go on to college. They were more able before they started college as well, and they are also at least four years older — the average graduate takes about 5-6 years to finish a four-year degree. How much of their better performance is because of that and how much of it is because of what they learned in college? We don’t know.

We do know, though, that how well they perform in college as measured by grades is not a predictor of how they perform in jobs. They predict whether you go to graduate school and become a doctor, say, but not whether you perform better as a manager.

Certainly there are occupations that are virtually impossible to do without a college degree in that field, such as engineering. But there are an increasing number of very practical-sounding degrees like communications, tourism management, healthcare administration, where the degrees really don’t seem to matter.

A revealing survey conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education asked employers what they actually looked for in new grads who applied for jobs. Of the top five attributes they listed, only one — relevance of the college major — had anything to do with classroom experiences. They were interested in work experience, especially internships, and extra-curricular programs, because they wanted to see whether the new grads can get along with other people, function in a work environment, and get things done.

When asked about specific academic skills that are important at work, survey after survey reports basic skills such as the ability to get along, to write clearly, problem-solving, and judgment.   There isn’t much disagreement between the priorities of employers and those of educators. It is certainly possible to learn those things in college. In fact, they have been the traditional goal of liberal arts programs.

The sensible alternative is first for colleges to get better at what we say we are supposed to be doing, which is preparing students to write, to reason, and process data, to work with others, and so forth. The second part, which is new, is to partner with employers who say they want such students and convince them that our college has the kind of grads employers say they want. Too many colleges have expected employers to find them and have treated their careers office as an afterthought. Still, shifting our attention there is probably easier and cheaper than creating real academic programs to match onto job titles like international tourism.

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So, if you are an employer, where does this leave you? It is probably not feasible to hire students right out of high school for jobs where we now hire college grads. The latter are just more grown up and more able to handle the independence most jobs require. Companies like CapGemini have the scale to adjust jobs to younger, high-school grads and help them grow up with the company. (They start them with very simple IT tasks and also send them to school one day per week with the goal of eventually earning a college degree.)

But it does mean that we shouldn’t obsess when hiring about grades or about job-specific majors. When we see more mature candidates who have not been to or finished college, we shouldn’t rule out hiring them. If we have jobs that don’t require college now, we might well consider good performers in them as candidates for entry-level jobs where we now require college degrees, just as most of the great corporations did in the past.


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3 Comments on “Is that College Degree Really Necessary?

  1. Excellent points, but how many recruiters are ruling these people out, as opposed to the HR departments of the companies they work for? Way more often than not it’s the latter, and because of the typical faulty reasoning people usually use, it continues for various reasons. ‘Everyone else’ does it; as a small firm we can’t be the ones to innovate on this front, so better cover ourselves, etc. It’s funny, but emblematic of the recruiting profession, that you can spend inordinate amounts of time explaining to someone how a degree isn’t predictive of on the job performance, have them agree with you, and then they still insist on the degree because they’d ‘rather be safe than sorry,’ even though they just agreed the degree was no guarantee of ‘safe.’ That’s how people reason. You can convince a ball player on an intellectual level that wearing his lucky underwear for every game really doesn’t make a difference, he’ll agree, and then still insist on wearing it. It’s nice to see some companies finally letting actual reason dictate their approach rather than lore from the past.

    1. Sounds exactly right. I wonder if we could persuade employers to look at these other candidates if we could persuade them that the alternative candidates would be cheaper?

      1. I doubt it. Rationality is only possessed by most people in the weak sense that they are goal oriented. They are not rational in the strong sense, as in following rules of logic and starting from well supported premises. I think the solution to hiring problems will be to remove people from the process as much as possible. When you look at the scientific process, it’s basically designed with the understanding that most people are heavily biased and seeks to remove those biases via various mechanisms, like open discussion, replication of results, peer review, etc. It’s not a perfect system by any means, but at its base it understands people are imperfect and seeks to nullify that as best it can. The hiring process needs to do the same thing. There was a recent study I’ve just read about that compared interview vs tests as per their effectiveness in hiring selection for entry level positions. The tests worked better and ended up producing longer tenured people, though people chosen via both means had similar levels of productivity. At a glance so far, it fits with what I think hiring will eventually be, which is a process where hiring managers only get involved once a couple candidates who can without question do the job are placed before them to choose. There will be no more vague rejections or BS, they will be looking at people who have been tested and can do the work required, and hopefully tested as well for some kind of personal compatibility with the manager and team. Tested without bias, without people screwing up everything possible at every stage of the game. And then they have to choose between them knowing that and not making decisions based on irrelevant BS like the pedigree of their school.

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