10/31/19 update This post has clearly struck a nerve, as it’s one of the most widely read on this site. My guess is that you’re reading it because you’re in the job market, and want to know if the lack of a degree will count against you. Or you’re considering whether it pays to get a degree. In any case, you’ll need a resume and job search advice, so I recommend that you click here to learn about my pricing and process, and also check out https://www.risingstarresumes.net/help-finding-a-job/
You want to know – before you make a huge financial investment – if a college degree is necessary to get a good job. I’m not going to repeat the gazillions of studies and statistics that prove that candidates without college degrees earn less than those who have them, nor will I bore you by repeating stories about moguls like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs who rose to riches and fame without one. So let’s discuss the factors that go into this determination, and understand: as determinations go, this one is highly individual.
Is a college degree necessary? consider these factors:
What are your professional goals? If your goal is to be a professional of any type, then yes, a college degree is necessary. Most financial services professionals need a Bachelor’s degree at minimum, and for future doctors and lawyers, a college degree is necessary as the first step in applying for graduate programs in medicine or law. Obviously, teachers need a college degree (and in some states, like New York and California, a Master’s as well), and for entry-level nursing positions you’ll need at minimum an Associate’s degree.
If what interests you is what was once considered a trade or craft, then a college degree probably isn’t necessary. This includes a lot of IT-related positions. Yes, most employers will say that a college degree is necessary for positions as a programmer, desktop or network administrator, but in reality, certifications – which can be earned online without the usual stigma attached to online degrees – afford you all the education required.
So why does everyone say that a college degree is necessary?
Not that long ago, earning a college degree meant that students had acquired a basic grounding in the humanities and could consider themselves broadly educated citizens of the world. But with an unfortunate and increasing de-emphasis on the humanities, many parents and students alike began to look for a return on their substantial investment, which resulted in college being viewed as vocational schools, not academies of higher learning.
As a baby boomer myself, I was brought up to believe that a college degree is necessary. I majored in Philosophy back in the early 70s, and I studied literature, history, art and music as well. STEM didn’t exist back then as a concept, but I avoided those courses whenever possible, taking only the bare minimum science and math required for the degree that proved how well-rounded a person I was.
Was it a waste of my parent’s money? No. Studying philosophy taught me to think logically; literature taught me about shared human experiences (and taught me by example how to write); history courses provided context for contemporary goings-on. Employers back then didn’t really care what I had majored in; it was the college degree itself that mattered.
But things have changed, as many jobs now require specialized skills, and I would argue that a college degree doesn’t provide those skills. That’s one reason that I urge recent college grads NOT to bother listing the courses they took on their resumes. Highly specific skills are well-demonstrated through certifications, so if this sounds like your target career, then is a college degree necessary? Probably not.
But is a college degree necessary for networking?
If you earn your degree at a brand name school in the top tier, then the brand recognition alone will open doors; rightly or wrongly, the Ivy League or their equivalents impress employers. Plus the networking opportunities are excellent; after all, there are no private clubs for state college grads. So do your networking via LinkedIn, and by attending industry-specific events.
But where you earn your degree isn’t solely a reflection of your intelligence, drive, or overall worthiness. More people attend less prestigious schools than do those who graduate with name brand degrees. The value of these degrees are that they demonstrate your drive and grit, especially if you worked your way through school. But ask yourself why you’re considering getting a college degree. If it’s only because you believe that a college degree is necessary, then consider other ways to demonstrate that you’re what your target employer is looking for. In other words, unless you are fortunate to get into a school that will open doors for you OR if you want an education for its own sake – because you want to be a person who knows a bit more about the world than what you grew up with – then consider these options.
Options to think about:
Certification As I mentioned at the top, look into certifications. I’ve met quite a few project managers who didn’t earn a college degree, but did earn certification as a PMP and they got hired; in fact, often when you do get a job, your employer will pay you to get a college degree, or a graduate degree if you already have one.
Internship Nothing tells an employer more about what you’re capable of than having already done it, and internships afford you that opportunity. If you can afford to take on a few internships – most of which are unpaid – then do so!
Freelance projects I can’t tell you how many people I’ve hired via HireArt, Task Rabbit, Craigslist for whom it wasn’t true that a college degree is necessary. Can they do what’s needed? That’s all I cared about. And once you develop a list of such projects, you now have credentials to put on your resume when seeking full time employment.