With the astronomical jobless rate and the skyrocketing cost of four-year college, many are questioning the value and validity of a bachelor’s degree. As a proud NYU alumnus, I treasure my education and wholeheartedly believe in the relevance of the college experience. However, over the years my black-and-white viewpoint on this subject has shifted to shades of gray.
That’s why the current educational phenomenon of “degree inflation” is so disconcerting to me. Economists and educators have coined this term to describe today’s hiring climate, where a college degree has become the basic requirement for jobs that don’t actually need an advanced education. According to Burning Glass, these positions include clerks, dental hygienist, administrative assistants, and paralegals. Corporate hiring professionals often adopt strict “degree required” criteria as a means of weeding out candidates and working with a manageable number of prospects. But very often this false criteria has no bearing on someone’s ability to engage, contribute, or excel in a role.
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A U.S. Department of Labor statistic reveals that 62 percent of all U.S. jobs require two-year or four-year degrees and higher. In recent years, as an agency recruiter (and former corporate recruiter), I have seen literally thousands of smart, talented, and highly experienced job candidates turned away from opportunities because they lacked a degree.
In fact, I recently sourced an amazing professional with 12 years of relevant experience and proven success. He was a better fit for the mid-level position than any of the college-educated candidates being considered, but he was excluded from the interview process because of the strict requirement regarding a college degree.
Of course, there are specific professional careers that will always call for a college degree — and in some cases, an advanced degree — including doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, accountants, therapists, and other specialists. But I am speaking of other positions — those that can be mastered with experience, skill, and training.
There are a handful of businesses that are not jumping on the “degree required” bandwagon. For example, FCi Federal, a Virginia back-office support firm for federal agencies, believes in giving high school grads equal opportunity. In five years, it has grown from a $2 million business to a $70 million firm. The CEO Sharon Virts Mozer believes college degrees are not always necessary. Ninety-five percent of her workforce has only a high school degree, yet she credits her workforce with playing a large role in the companies success. “My philosophy is that if you take an average workforce and give them a great process, you can accomplish tremendous things,” says Virts Mozer.
In 2010, University of Colorado at Boulder analyzed a variety of academic measurements and found that “CEO education does not seem to be an appropriate proxy for CEO ability.” This fact raises questions about the performance of every employee at every educational level. After all, if a CEO’s education does not affect performance, than why are the expectations so high for those holding roles beneath the CEO? Imagine slamming the door on a high-school educated applicant who is a hard-working, capable, innovative thinker — someone like Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Mary Kay, or Mrs. Fields. After all, none of these industry leaders earned college degrees. Would they be excluded from your interview process?
Furthermore, hiring professionals and employers should open their minds and their hearts and realize that … life happens! People get sick. Families experience financial hardship. Teenagers mature at different rates.
There are some very good reasons for not receiving that college degree. Why hold it against applicants? Hear their stories. Get to know them. People with relevant business experience, great recommendations, a track record of upward mobility, or just great potential should be considered.