There’s a lot of debate these days about whether college degrees are worth the time/money invested by students, and whether they’re really required in a work environment where knowledge, skill, and ability (KSA) needs change so quickly. Is there a better way?
Pandemic Experiences Raise New Questions
Experiences during the pandemic with remote and hybrid learning have called into question both the value of a college degree and the traditional model for earning a degree. Students relegated to their dorm rooms or homes have questioned the requirement to pay the same fee they would pay for in-person learning in environments where many say they’re “teaching themselves.”
Even before the pandemic, though, college costs were rising steeply, causing students (and their families) to question the value of their investment of both money, and time. From the employer standpoint, the challenge to find qualified workers for a variety of positions is leading many to rethink requirements they have around undergraduate and graduate degrees.
Back in 2018, for instance, SHRM reported that 90% of employers reported that they were “ready to accept candidates without four-year college degrees to fill positions in an increasingly tight labor market.”
Since then, of course, the pandemic has upended all aspects of the work—and education—environments. One impact, and potential benefit for both employees and employers, is that online learning is more prevalent than ever before.
In addition, the pandemic has also given rise to what is being called the “great resignation” and employers and HR leaders are increasingly cognizant of the need to think differently about how to best attract—and retain—employees. In some cases, that includes rethinking degree requirements in light of a shrinking talent pool.
Still, many continue to believe that college degrees hold value both for employees and the organizations they work for.
Yes, College Degrees are Still Valuable
“Having a bachelor’s or master’s degree has, and continues, to be a crucial credential for many careers,” says Alison Bell, regional vice president of Western Governs University (WGU). “Not only can a college degree increase your income, but it can positively impact an individual’s quality of life—and their family’s—and provide job security,” she says. “A college degree increases earning potential and continues to increase with each additional degree,” Bell says.
Jon Hill, CEO and chairman of The Energists, an executive search and recruiting firm working in the energy industry, agrees with that sentiment and adds that, in addition, college can be “a shortcut to building your professional network” in ways that would otherwise be difficult to do—with professors, fellow students, and professional and social organizations on-campus.
Those are key benefits for individuals, but what about for organizations?
For employers, a college degree, Hill says, demonstrates that employees can manage their time and see projects through to completion. “The ability to maintain a full course load for four years demonstrates soft skills that are difficult to show on your resume otherwise as an entry-level candidate.”
Still, others question the value, especially in today’s economic and employment environment.
No, College Degrees are Over-Rated
Reza Khastou, MEd, is founder and administrator of The Polytech, a private high school in Seattle that continues working with students through age 26 to assist with the transitions to college, career, and adulthood. “The four-year degree is less useful now as the increased costs have gotten out of hand,” says Khastou. “The job market opportunities and salaries do not match the amount of money that students owe after earning their degrees.” In addition, she says: “The workforce has changed and at the same time, the economy needs people who have short-term training with skills who can come in, get additional training from the company on their particular processes, and become valuable technical workers.”
Higher education has traditionally lagged behind in fully embracing online formats, Bell acknowledges. The pandemic has pushed more schools and universities to do just that, though, which offers some flexible options to meet organizational and individual needs.
Whether or not agreement can be reached on the value of formal education, one thing is certain in this environment—there really is no “all or nothing” approach that will work for every organization, or every position.
A College Degree Should Not Be a Default Requirement
There are new alternatives to college degrees in an increasingly changing, and increasingly technology-enabled environment. College programs struggle to stay up to date with shifting trends impacting the types of jobs and how work is done.
“I’ve long been an advocate of certificate programs at community colleges because many of these programs are short-term, cohort-based, and award micro-credentials that can be stacked,” says Khastou. Many alternatives exist to a four-year degree, Khastou says.
In addition, Hill points to apprenticeships and trade schools as “excellent alternatives for both organizations and students.” They offer many of the same benefits as four-year degree programs, “but at a significantly lower cost and with more specialized training.”
Still, for some roles, college degrees do matter. Even if the technical competencies for the job could be performed without a college degree, there is still benefit to a degree from other perspectives, especially for those new to the workforce, Hill points out.
Hill says he doesn’t see the value of obtaining a degree diminishing in the coming years. However, what he does see happening is “a democratization of how degrees are viewed.” He explains: “Rather than seeing specific degree programs or universities in qualifications, I see more that simply ask for any degree, with the understanding it’s the soft skills aspect that are more valuable than the technical/industry knowledge gained, particularly in those fields where technology and information change rapidly.”
These are decisions that need to be made on a case-by-case basis, considering the culture of the organization, the types of positions being filled, the skills and competencies required, to what extent soft skills come into play, and whether degree requirements might keep otherwise qualified—and, potentially, marginalized—candidates from being considered.
Whether or not a college degree is a “must have” or a “nice to have” for your organization, the ability to verify whether someone has the degree they’ve indicated in their application or resume is important. Accurate’s education verification services can give you the peace of mind you need to ensure that your candidates have the credentials they claim.