June 26, 2022

Why College Degrees Are Working Against Many Job-Seekers

No degree is the new degree.

‘Would you rather hire someone who ran a marathon, or had a college degree?’

I remember when I saw the question posed on LinkedIn. It got hundreds of responses, almost all of whom said they’d pick the marathoner.

It turns out, the story most young people have been told about the value of degrees on the job market isn’t true, and it’s getting less true every day.

A few years ago, I talked to a business owner who turned down a candidate I passed along because he had a Master’s degree. He told me, “He seems smart and has some skill, but he’s been in school too long. It will take me too much time to get those habits out of him. Plus, I’ve found people with advanced degrees tend to be entitled and assume they’re worth more than they are.”

The famous venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz developed a framework for evaluating which entrepreneurs were most likely to succeed with their startups. One of the strongest indicators was being a college drop-out. The courage and out-of-the-box thinking needed to overcome social pressure and quit school was a bullish sign.

All of these stories share one takeaway in common: a college degree doesn’t do a good job of signaling employability. In fact, choosing not to get one can be a better signal.

And no wonder. Employers routinely report that college grads lack basic skills they look for in new hires. (See here, here, and here, for example). In fact, less than 10 percent of employers think colleges do a good job of preparing students for the working world. (Study cited here.)

A lack of useful skills is only part of the problem. Grads are saddled with debt, often taught absurd ideas from professors disconnected from the real world, and encouraged to see themselves as victims. Add to that binge-drinking and increasingly draconian policies around health and politically correct speech, and campuses have become a place to pick up bad habits and bad ideas.

Employers want to know you can create value. ‘BA – Communications’ on a resume doesn’t convey much. But you know what does?

A good opt-out or drop-out story.

I have seen hundreds of young people with no degree and no experience get jobs that said a bachelor’s and 2-3 years of experience were required. They won these jobs because they showed something more valuable than a few static bullets on a resume. They explained why they chose not to go to college, and that they did an apprenticeship, internship, self-guided study program, or project instead.

Employers love it. They get excited. Instead of someone simply taking the path of least resistance and muddling through college because their parents paid for it, they see individuals willing to forge their own way, think clearly about costs and benefits, and take initiative.

That’s why college alternative programs often boast placement rates of 90 percent or better immediately upon graduation, while just 40 percent of university students have jobs within three months after graduation.

Young people who prioritize real-world experience, self-directed learning, and creating an interesting life for themselves are increasingly sought after over those who do the normal college thing.

What began as a counter-signal for startup founders and high-tech jobs is spreading to more and more roles as hiring managers discover the best traits are better correlated with opt-outs than the college-educated. The most dynamic companies need to see more than the same piece of paper everyone else has.

It’s not that college is too good for many young people; it’s that more and more young people are too good for college.

This article, Why College Degrees Are Working Against Many Job-Seekers, was originally published by the Foundation for Economic Education and appears here with permission.  Please support their mission.