The Case for Preferring Candidates Without Degrees

The scenario is all too common: The hiring process comes down to two candidates. Both are qualified, but one has a college degree. One does not. As a recruiter, you know it’s going to be harder to sell the person without the degree. Questions will arise about the candidate: Why didn’t the person go to college? Were they not committed? Is something wrong with them?

Consequently, common sentiment would be to hire the person with the degree. But is that the right decision? 

Let’s take a step back. Suppose both individuals have growth in their careers and are both at similar levels. More than likely, the person without the college degree had to work harder to get to the same place. Is that not something to consider? This person has likely developed skills such as learnability, resilience, empathy, and creativity, as well as various technical and negotiation skills. These are the top skills needed by employers.

So the question now becomes: Between the candidate with the college degree and the one without, who has a better handle on these skills?

The Stories of Keith and Jae

To answer that question, it helps to look at some real-life examples. 

Keith DeCristo is currently a cinematography business development specialist. He has shot more than 5,000 hours of video, edited more than 10,000 hours, and has worked hundreds of jobs in editorial departments. Keith has worked on commercials, music videos, movie trailers, documentaries, reality TV shows, and feature films. And he did it all without ever going to film school. 

He was a nontraditional hire at Adorama. His background was and still is his strongest asset. Keith’s creativity and expertise with cameras allowed him to exceed expectations during his first few months. He brought a unique flavor to the office, something a traditional specialist just could not do. Even though he has only been there a few months, he has already established a name within his team.

And take Jae Taylor. Jae went from being an office assistant to a tech leader. He is currently a director of product management in the data and infrastructure engineering group at Salesforce. Previously, he worked at Microsoft and Expedia. 

When he was an office assistant, Jae always made sure to learn the technology within his office. He consistently demonstrated his value. Despite that, he was rejected from many jobs just because he did not have a college degree.

He did not lack the skills to excel at those roles; he simply was not given the opportunity to prove his ability. In fact, it got so bad that he stopped applying for jobs and started his own company. Eventually he landed a role at Salesforce. What set him apart from other candidates? The skills he acquired as an entrepreneur combined with those obtained at previous jobs he had held.

Notably, Keith and Jae lacked degrees — but they proved to be superior candidates to those who did hold BAs, MBAs, etc. And so it’s worth examining why candidates without degrees often prove to be more desirable.

Learning Outside the Classroom

The world is changing fast. The information students learn from their 13th edition college textbooks (themselves often outdated) don’t do much for the things that happen in the workplace. How many scenarios do you encounter at work that you actually read about in a textbook?

In the workplace, you don’t have a professor guiding you or holding your hand. You must figure things out. And people without college degrees have always had to figure things out to grow in their careers. If they did not, they simply would not get the benefit of the doubt. As a result, their credibility depends on their learnability.

What’s more, the classroom is very guided. The real world is not. In a classroom, you are rewarded for learning along a syllabus. In the workplace, you are rewarded for implementing solutions that people have not been able to implement or have not thought about implementing at all. 

This is all to say that there’s a good chance that the candidate with more real-world experience would trump a candidate who’s spent that time in school.

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The Importance of Nontraditional Experience

You want innovative solutions. You want to be better than your competitors. At a minimum, you want to be able to solve problems. If innovative solutions were easy to come up with, they wouldn’t be innovative. More importantly, you can’t expect someone to go through the traditional path and come up with nontraditional solutions.

People without degrees often have career paths that don’t look like your typical resume. That experience can be a great asset to your team. When teams have people who all come from the same background, groupthink tends to hold back progress. Bringing in someone with a nontraditional path may be what’s needed to spark some creative thought on the team rather than promote groupthink.

People with nontraditional experience also tend to build empathy along their journey, as they encounter people of diverse backgrounds. In other words, candidates without degrees have often seen and experienced more than traditional candidates — which can bode well for boosting diversity and business results. 

The Rise of Resilience

If you have an organization that is growing, at some point, things will get tough. Some projects may take years to finish or repeatedly get roadblocked. Having people that can handle the tough times and pull through is an asset. A person without a college degree is accustomed to hearing “no.” They are used to rejection. In fact, most are rejected before even given a chance. Yet, they have navigated such rejection with negotiation skills to get past people who have looked down on them for lacking a degree.

Simply put, they are resilient. 

Don’t you want employees who are able to stick through, bounce back from adversity, and lead effectively when the outlook is grim? Oftentimes, the best people who can handle struggles are the people who have been through them. 

The X-Factor

Finally, there’s the X-factor that separates high-performers from average workers. Learning things on your own is hard. It is extremely time-consuming. It is not something that can be done in a month or two. Yet candidates who don’t have degrees have had to do just that — learn on their own. And that takes passion. Indeed, passion is the only thing that will drive a person to stay on this path through so much uncertainty. Passion is the X-factor.

Yes, every candidate will talk about passion. But candidates without degrees have clearly demonstrated their passion by already living it.

The big takeaway should be obvious by this point: Consider candidates without a degree. Give them a deeper look. You may have a Keith or Jae in front of you.

Jonaed Iqbal is a career consultant based in New York City. He has set out with a goal to assist people without college degrees find new job opportunities. Jonaed is also the founder of NoDegree.com, home to an innovative local job search platform, which aims to connect people with suitable career paths, even without formal degrees.

Based in the New York City area, Jonaed has an extensive professional background across various industries. He has served as an actuary at MetLife and worked as a financial analyst and consultant for New York City public schools. Believing in the potential of his idea, he decided to launch NoDegree.com and pursue speaking engagements on a full-time basis. He now focuses on running NoDegree.com., serving jobseekers and employers in the New York City area ,with plans to expand in the future.

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