The other day I witnessed an intense debate about the importance of having a college degree. The discussion was between two VPs who were trying to decide if an entry-level job description should mandate that the incumbent have a Bachelor's degree. VP#1 was adamant that without a B.A., she would be unable to assess whether or not the candidate was truly qualified. VP#2 argued that a degree doesn't matter, if the experience is there. The two verbally duked it out for what seemed like hours (it was like 10 minutes, in reality, but still seemed longer than needed to me), only to eventually turn to me and ask who was right? Does degree equal talent?
My answer? They both are right...depending on the position.
In all honesty, I always tend to lean toward taking experience over a degree. I cringe when I read job descriptions that mandate a 4 year degree for positions where a person's experience would be much more beneficial to the company. However, I can understand situations where the degree is crucial.
The problem with requiring a candidate to have a certain educational background is that organizations sometimes use it as a manner to weed out "undesirables", that is, those that may not have a certain the pedigree or polish that they believe college somehow provides. These methods were historically used broadly by companies to keep minorities or lower/working class folks from applying, as they were a lot less likely to have a degree. While I would never think that VP#1 was a racist or classicist, I believe her motivation relied on the fact that this was the way it had always been. She struggled with the ability to make a hiring-decision without the tools she was accustomed to using, such as the candidate having a degree.
In certain scenarios, I believe a degree is a must. Fields where you would be hard pressed to obtain the skill set without the training college provides, in my opinion, should require a degree. Education, medical, or engineering-type positions would classify as such. I also believe that certain levels of positions may need the advanced teachings of a degree. But if there is a perfectly qualified candidate for a role, who has the experience in the position and is completely qualified, why not hire them? Perhaps they tried college and it wasn't for them. Maybe they couldn't afford it and had to work their way up the ladder.
Non-graduates should not be punished for not taking the traditional route.
As a woman who entered the workforce far before her degree was complete, I understand the importance of not judging a resume by their lack of diploma. I was able to have an award-winning career, sans-Bachelor's degree for quite some time. It wasn't until someone would directly ask me if I had a degree that they would know otherwise. Now, coming from a family of highly-educated folks, I completed my degree. But had the HR department at my very first position judged me by my initial absence of education, I would certainly not be where I am today.
Now this isn't me saying everyone should skip college and go straight for the career, I believe college, in addition to academics, teaches you certain social skills that prepare your for the real world (like how to get your butt up and go to class without someone forcing you and how to not get wasted before important days like interviews and presentations). It also teaches students how to manage their time and how to approach projects utilizing critical thinking skills all within an environment where mistakes can be made without losing everything. Those that go the non-degree route must learn these skills on their own and usual with hard consequences when mistakes are made. Hiring a mix of college grads and non-college grads will give an organization the best diversity of staff members, who each bring their unique approaches and outlooks to projects.
In today's world, with college tuition becoming more and more expensive every year, employers are going to have to get real with the fact that not every qualified candidate is going to be backed by collegiate letters...and that's ok.
Amber Aziza is a Millennial Career Expert and host of The Global Millennial Conference. After spending 10 years in Corporate America, she founded The Aziza Group, a consulting firm dedicated to helping Gen Y accelerate their careers through coaching and helping corporations change their company culture to be more conducive to the new generations. Want to know more? Contact her today!