The Mythology of the University Degree

When I spoke to a national collegiate conference in 2015, I titled my talk “Expect Chaos: IT Career Paths – The Next 50 Years.” I made it clear to university students that they had been told a story about education and career that would probably not come true for them. It’s the same story that we tell to all of our young people:

Graduate high school – get into a good college – declare a major – graduate – get a job in your field – advance in your profession – retire

This pathway does not reflect the reality of our careers, the value of education, or the expectations of the marketplace. US Census data shows that only 32.5% of adults hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. Of those people, only 28% of them work in their field of study. Do the math, and you end up with roughly 9% of the adult population. After you consider people who need a degree to practice – physicians, architects, engineers – who is left? The minority of the workforce has a degree, and the minority of degree holders are active in their field. If university education is the key to a good career, how do we explain the disconnect between degree and career?

In context of these numbers, consider the hiring process. Job descriptions for professional positions often include: “bachelor’s degree required, master’s preferred.” Ignoring the fact that only 12% of adults have an advanced degree, the bachelor’s requirement shuts out 70% of the workforce. Since most Human Resource departments use software to qualify candidates based on educational attainment and keywords, there is little hope that a job seeker without a degree will be considered. Their resume goes directly into the NO pile, regardless of practical experience or performance capability.

Why does that matter? Go back to the IT students that I addressed. Statistically, 59% of them will graduate within six years. So, 41% will fall into the no-degree pile. There are more complicated reasons for leaving university than lack of aptitude, including high cost, perceived lack of value, and pressure to work. A 2011 Pew Research paper showed that people understand the connection between  a degree and lifetime earnings, but short-term financial obligations win. To hiring managers, people with some college experience are the same as those with no college experience, regardless of capability or practical experience.

For many people, the very reason to complete a degree program is to qualify for work opportunities, which is why they take on student loan debt. There’s the promise of a payoff. And, in the US, it’s a real threat. In the Fast Company article How The Master’s Degree Became The New Bachelor’s In The Hiring World, Lydia Dishman showed that US employers are raising educational requirements due to correlated work quality. Requiring a master’s degree means that playing field is narrowed from 30% to 12% of the total workforce. Dishman contrasted that situation with two UK firms who have delisted educational attainment as a requirement because it didn’t correlate with performance or because the practice unfairly barred people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Official White House photo by Pete Souza

But let’s get back to the title of my conference talk, “Expect Chaos.” In the marketplace, change is fast, relentless, and constant. People who are retiring now at age 68 graduated university in 1970. That year, there were 2,388 bachelor’s degrees awarded in computer and information sciences. In the entire country. Programming meant punch cards. Now, anyone can build an app with another app, host a server for a favorite online gaming community, and access artificial intelligence through consumer-grade services like The Grid and The market will shift dramatically in the next five years, let alone 50, and the pace of change requires the ability to acquire new skills in the workplace in real time, independent of degree status. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has never studied career change, so there are no official statistics, but I suspect that most students will end up in a different place than they started.

I believe that Human Resources is using educational attainment as an outdated measuring device – a heuristic. It is a mental shortcut that gives organizations the illusion that they are selecting employees who have demonstrated certain capabilities. Using minimum educational attainment appears to be a safe way to determine that a worker is qualified for a professional position. From an organizational perspective, limiting the talent pool means that the organization misses out on talented employees who are otherwise qualified. It’s dangerous to organizational capacity, diversity and inclusion, and general competitiveness.

For transparency, I am among the 41% of US college dropouts, the 67.5% without a bachelor’s degree. I am also a committed adult learner who has produced TEDx events, contributed to a United Nations initiative, and helped homeschool my children. When I was a 20 year-old student enrolled in General Studies, I found my university experience uninteresting and pointless. I had no specific career trajectory, and my parents had four other children to educate. I felt like I was wasting resources and time, so I chose to leave.

My personal experience obviously guides my perspective on this issue, but I’m not alone. If money were no object, many people would continue, restart, or begin their university education. Detroit and Boston now provide two years of free community college to their high school graduates because they know that an associate’s degree makes people more attractive to Human Resources and gets students closer to a bachelor’s degree. Higher educational attainment also correlates with a reduction in poverty, criminal activity, unplanned pregnancy, and other social problems.

In practical terms, our workforce needs more capable, skilled workers to keep up with global market demands. If you believe that those workers come from universities, make the education free and accessible to all people. If you agree that skilled workers exist but aren’t given a fair chance to contribute, make a bachelor’s degree “nice to have” but not a requirement for employment consideration.