Do You Need a College Degree?
Statistics show that college graduates tend to earn more than non-graduates. So, if you want a good career, do you need to go to college first?
Statistics can be misleading. Employers don’t care about credentials as such. Ultimately, what they care about is the candidate’s potential to create value.
Employers seek to hire workers who will give more value than they take. In order for a business to survive and succeed, it eventually needs to earn profit: to get more money in revenue than it pays out in costs. To be a good hire, a worker needs to be productive enough that the revenue his labor brings in is greater than the costs he incurs: his compensation, the cost of training, regulatory costs, etc.
Employers only care about college degrees to the extent they believe they are signals of future value creation. This belief is reasonable to an extent. The more ambitious, harder-working, and brighter young people are the ones who tend to apply to, get into, and complete college. And it is ambitious, hard-working, and bright people who are more likely to create more value for their employers. But it’s important to get straight what is the cause and what is the effect. Those virtues enabled them to graduate from college. But college isn’t what gave them those virtues.
Here’s an analogy to help understand what’s going on.
Think of college as an obstacle course. Let’s say that, for some strange reason, nearly all would-be baseball players believed that mastering a particular obstacle course was the best way to achieve their dream. So, after high school, instead of actually practicing baseball, they all spent four years on this one obstacle course.
Now imagine you’re a Major League recruiter. The vast majority of the pool of young talent available to you has very little baseball experience. But, given that most of them spent four years on this obstacle course, naturally the more ambitious, harder-working, and more generally athletic contenders would tend to be the ones who mastered the course. So it would make a good deal of sense to favor them in your recruitment drive, since they would tend to be the better players.
This would not mean it was the obstacle course that made them ambitious and hardworking in the first place. It also would not mean that spending four years on the obstacle course was a particularly effective preparation for becoming a good baseball player.
Employers are in a similar position. Very few 22-year-olds have much real experience in professional market-value creation. So in general the best clue they have to go on for this cohort is college graduation. That doesn’t mean college is the best way to spend the first four years of your adulthood to prepare for a career in knowledge work. It also doesn’t mean that it’s the best (much less the only) way to signal your potential for value creation to employers.
A Better Signal than College
Wouldn’t it be difficult to create a better value-creation signal than what college provides?
In a survey of more than 60,000 managers, PayScale found that only 50% thought their recent college graduate hires were prepared to succeed (while at the same time 87% of recent grads thought they were prepared). A full 60% of managers thought that recent grads lacked critical thinking skills, 56% thought they lacked attention to detail, and 44% thought they lacked writing proficiency.
In a separate AACU Study, only 28% of employers surveyed thought that recent grads were well prepared in oral communication and 27% in written communication, compared to 62 and 65% of students who believed they were well prepared in those areas.
When that is all a college degree is signaling it isn’t hard to find a better signal.
What to Do Instead
How else could you signal value-creation potential?
For most careers, a college degree will, at most, help you land your first job in your desired profession. After that, it’s your work experience and references that employers care most about. So the real question is how to signal your value-creation prospects to get your foot in the door. There are many ways to do this.
Make Specific Value Propositions
Research the employer you want to work for and identify ways you could help them. Maybe their Facebook page is dormant, and you could offer to run it. Maybe you could do some graphic design or photography for them. If they’re willing to pay you for it, great. If not, offer to work for free. Think of the learning experience and the future references you’re getting as your compensation.
Build a Digital Paper Trail
Build a digital paper trail exhibiting your value-creation awesomeness. But think way bigger than an online resume or even just a LinkedIn profile. Create a personal web site. Use it to feature samples of your past work. Have it include a blog where you work and learn “out loud.” Write about your experience creating value for others and teaching yourself new skills. Also, use your blog to tell your story in a way that conveys your upward trajectory
Start Creating Value as Soon as Possible
Can’t land that first professional position right away? Start freelancing. Offer your services to your friends and your broader network, even for free at first. Build goodwill; such “social capital” will likely lead to opportunities.
And get yourself into a non-“professional” job. Don’t be ashamed of jobs in retail or involving manual labor. They are great for building resourcefulness, a work ethic, and value-orientation. Every job is an opportunity for personal growth. And, if you throw yourself into it and go above and beyond, any job can open doors for you by winning you fans and champions among your supervisors, colleagues, and customers.
The above are techniques that have been used to great success, especially by participants in the education/apprenticeship program Praxis.
- The Case against Education: Why the Education System Is a Waste of Time and Money, by Bryan Caplan
- 40 Alternatives to College, by James Altucher
- These Are The Skills Bosses Say New College Grads Do Not Have, by Karsten Strauss
- Throw Your Resume Away: Simple Steps to Developing an Effective Value Proposition, by Derek Magill
- Good Stories Always Beat Good Resumes, by Derek Magill
- Falling Short? College Learning and Career Success, by Hart Research Associates