Do You Really Need College-Educated Workers?

Tim Sackett Audacious Ideas, Good HR, Hiring Bias, HR, Recruiting, Tim Sackett 10 Comments

FOT Note: This post comes straight out of the FOT vault. Every now and then, we like to re-run golden nuggets of insight to keep the message alive. What you’re about to read is one of them. 

I’m a huge advocate for formal education. My 3 sons have gone, will go to college, or get beat until they go to college. It’s their choice. (That’s why I’m a good parent. I give my kids choices. It empowers them!) I paid my own way through 5 wonderful years of undergrad—go Wyoming! I also paid my own way through 3 not-so-wonderful years of night and weekend classes to finish my masters (Go Chips) while working full time. Besides marrying my wife and having my boys, my education might be the thing I value most in my life.

I will only hire recruiters to my team who have an undergrad degree. We have monthly brown bag lunch-and-learns—my team is so fond of these! I rarely will not give permission to someone on my team to attend additional training, webinars, etc. (Special note to my team: Don’t all of you now start coming in and asking to attend conferences in Vegas, San Diego, etc. I’m just making a point… our lunch and learns work just fine—plus you won’t see any better presenter at those conferences than you already get with me! Heck, I was almost #25 on John Sumser’s most important HR people of all time—allegedly).

Education is important. But does it need to be?

The New Yorker recently had one of the best articles I’ve read all year (Live and Learn: Why We Have College) that looks at why this whole college thing started and asks the question on whether it’s really as valuable as we HR Pros/employers continue to rank it.  Let’s look at some facts from the article:

  • 68% of high school graduates now attend college
  • Avg. Wage by level: Graduate degree: $83K, Undergrad, $58K, High School, $31K (we definitely reward this behavior)
  • Avg. hours per week students in college spend studying: 1960 – 25 hrs, 2010 – 12 hrs
  • Major Studies have shown that after 4 years of college, 36% of students have shown no improvement in their ability to solve problems, think critically, reason and write effectively (but they still get a degree, and you hire them)

There are two theories why we have kids attend college:

1. Society needs a mechanism for sorting out the smart ones from the dumb ones. Thus, making college a 4-year intelligence test.

2. Society is using colleges to socialize our youth in a way to produce like-minded adults (from a socialization aspect) to be prepared to work together in professional settings.

Don’t believe me? Besides professions that need formal training—engineers, doctors, accountants—why do we really need colleges? Does an engineer really need a class on Historical World Literature to be an engineer? Does a Surgeon need a Creative Writing class? No, they don’t. Not long ago in our history, doctors and lawyers didn’t even need an undergrad to get into Medical School or Law School.

Now the real question: Does your Manager of Client Services really need a degree? (Rr your IT Analyst, Benefits Administrator, Accounts Payable Manager, etc.?) It’s hard to find a job description in today’s world that doesn’t require a bachelors degree. I could argue we all would be much better off taking these kids straight out of high school and spending 4 years training them ourselves in the functions we need. I bet those people would be much more valuable to your organization after four years than a new grad fresh out of college!

It’s an interesting question to contemplate as an HR Pro. I tend to justify my need to hire college grads because I think the ability to go through a 4 or 5 year program, finish and get a good GPA shows me a number of things about a person’s ability to finish, stay with something long-term and proves basic book smarts. But, I also believe the type of degree the person holds has very little to do with the success of being a recruiter in my environment. I’ve had English grads outperform business grads, and sociology grads outperform human resource grads. Personality tends to be a bigger factor than almost anything else.

Do you believe you really need all those college grads for your company? Hire a GED this year and run your own test.

Comments 10

  1. Very interesting post. I’m on the fence about this whole issue. I think having a college degree is necessary for most jobs – at least to get in the door. But, having a college degree doesn’t mean that the hire is going to be an effective employee at all.
    I’ve interviewed college grads for PR positions that were in no way capable to perform the job (despite having a degree in PR!). At the same time, I’ve interviewed college students (as young as freshman) that I could have started right away!
    In the business I work in now, some of our top employees never went to college and they are literally the backbone of our company. It all comes down to work ethic and having a keen understanding of the tasks at hand.
    I also think that some of the best entrepreneurs out there don’t have a college degree.
    I’m not sure what the answer is, but I do know that having a degree does not automatically generate on-the-job success. I also wish that there wasn’t such a stigma on people who don’t have a college degree – especially in these tough financial times.

  2. Thanks Tim, for an interesting and thought provoking post. Over the last few years, I’ve felt more and more that a 4 year degree isn’t needed nearly as often as advertised.
    My sense is that we’re using the 4 year degree as a proxy for a bunch of things: the ability to work in a team, a broad knowledge base, structured problem solving. I think the New Yorker article shows that these things are not necessarily associated.
    I’d love to see our HR function evolve our thinking around degrees, focusing more on applicable training rather than fetishizing a 4 year degree. Certificate programs and 2 year degrees provide better job training in many cases, and are much more cost effective for the students. We should be brave enough to admit this.

  3. I use to work for a woman who thought that everyone we hired had to have a degree. This quite often irked me because lots of talented invidiuals were being screened out.
    We worked hard to overturn this decision. Best thing we ever did.

  4. My experience has been that unless a college grad has a hard science degree or specialized degree such as nursing or veterinary medicine, what you are getting in a college grad is what you used to get in a high school grad. Most kids are going to college for a degree, not an education, and they end up taking easy majors that don’t give them more of an education than high school graduates used to get before the days of letting them slip through the system with grades they didn’t deserve. When looking at college grads these days, I look at those with Masters Degrees the way I used to look at those with Bachelor’s degrees. The Masters degree tells me the person was committed to getting an education and not a degree. It tells me they did more studying than partying, and lets me know what I can expect of their performance.

  5. Very interesting points Tim and thanks for bringing up such an important discussion. Here are my thoughts and a bit of context:
    We currently manage a platform for college students to find jobs and internships and while I believe that a college degree is not necessary nor an indicator of aptitude in a professional setting, I agree that college has both sorting and socialization effects which are beneficial. For most families that can afford it, it is seen as a rite of passage.
    What I do advance is the notion that most colleges don’t do a very good job at preparing students for the working environment. I believe that most schools just give you a guide in the last 3 months of graduation with a generic title such as “Life After College” and expect you to be on your way. Perhaps that is the heart of the question, not whether companies need college educated workers but whether college educated workers have a better understanding of what it means to succeed in a corporate setting. I would say that navigating the social intricacies of college, taking up leadership positions in student organizations and managing other people, and having the ability to solve intellectual problems are three reasons why a college degree demands a premium in the marketplace. I would love to hear more thoughts from others.

  6. As a Manager of client services and sales support, I ignore Bachelors of anything. Generally, I believe it clouds the issue. I am looking to hire data-driven, socially capable staff who can build a relationship – what does a degree tell me about that?
    Personally, I focus on employment history, culture fit and domain knowledge when I look at resumes. Education is a boon when it specifically applies to the vocation – and IMO, a bachelors rarely is.

  7. In theory a person who has a college degree should be expected to out-perform a person lacking formal education. In over 30 years of working in accounting and administrative support roles in a variety of industries I have not found this to be true.
    I started out performing basic bookkeeping tasks using skills I learned in high school. From the age of 18 I worked steadily, researching to find out what I needed to do my job well, and moved into positions of increasing responsibility. I found I had an affinity for accounting, and I was constantly learning–new systems, methods, laws, and practices. I became familiar with GAAP, and I honed my computer skills with a lengthy stint doing technical support for an accounting software company.
    In many instances I was responsible for training new employees who came into the organizations with credentials in place. I’m sorry to say that I’ve known a few who could not balance their own checkbooks or write a coherent paragraph.
    Colleges and Universities are largely self-serving profit centers, and the business of “education” is a BIG business.
    When HR professionals ignore years of practical work experience in favor of candidates who have degrees they are taking a shortcut that frequently costs the company(ies) more money for an unqualified “trainee” who may take years to get up to speed.
    I do not mean any disrespect to degreed professionals, but just because I lack a degree does not mean I stopped learning when I left high school. I love learning. I love working. I have an education that money couldn’t buy. While my peers were busy delaying adulthood by four-to-six years, I was establishing myself and working my butt off.
    So please, stop tossing my resume into the trash before you meet me.

  8. As someone with no college/university degree and a focus in HRMS, I couldn’t agree more with this post. I think that college / university is a great opportunity and would never advise someone away from it, but I also find that it can teach more “in the box” thinking than outside. I’d rather take a chance on a creative thinker than someone with a degree built for the job who isn’t going to expand their thinking.

    Not to say that all university / college students are stuck in the box, but I find that more are. The creativity can be forced out, and that’s really unfortunate.

    I’m looking for people to expand the box – or make a circle. Forget the box.

  9. Reading this again in 2020, it is interesting to note the absence of any discussion regarding inclusive hiring. I know that the recent university grads I work with often have a well-developed critical thinking ability. However, university or college is not the only path to obtaining that. Higher education is a privilege and rigidly adhering to the requirement may impact your ability to create diverse teams.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *