Why Do I Need a College Degree for That Job?
I remember a time, about 10 years ago, when I was having lunch with a friend who was frustrated about her advancement opportunities at work. She had been with the same company for five years – and she was doing quite well, too. She was well-liked by the people she worked with, always received glowing performance reviews and regularly pocketed higher-than-average pay raises. In fact, she had done so well, she had basically reached the top of the ladder at her current position and was looking for a new one to climb.
The company she worked for generally preferred to promote from within. Since she had already shown herself to be a hard and valued worker, she figured she would have a good shot at getting a supervisory position… until she looked at the requirements for those job openings. In addition to other listed skills, they all included the same one line: Candidate must have or be actively pursuing a college degree.
My friend didn’t have a degree, and she thought this requirement was extremely unfair. “I know I could do that job now. Or that one,” she said while pointing to the print-out she had brought with her. “I don’t know what I could learn in college that would make me a better person for that job. It doesn’t even specify what kind of degree. They’re discriminating against me!”
When she made that last statement, it really made me stop and think. In my mind, I understood why her company was restricting the applicant pool – and why the job posting didn’t mention a particular field of study. The company wasn’t overly concerned with what types of facts you learned when pursuing a college degree. It was more interested in the other general skills you learned along the way – such as meeting deadlines, working in teams, analyzing information and coming up with your own conclusions, and setting and achieving goals.
Yes, college is supposed to help you develop those skills, but you can develop them without going to college, too. So, is it really a form of discrimination to assume someone hasn’t acquired these abilities if they only have a high school diploma?
In fact, it really wasn’t that long ago that the same job listings may have only stated a high school diploma or GED was required – for the exact same reasons. Does this mean that high schools aren’t preparing people for the workforce as well as they used to?
Not necessarily. In some ways, it’s more of a supply and demand issue. A larger percentage of the workforce has a college degree today, and even many of these degree holders are having a tough time finding a job. This allows employers to be pickier and to stack on additional requirements to help thin out the applicant pool. For at least the last five years, the unemployment rate for those with only a high school diploma has been more than twice as high as for those with a bachelor's degree or higher.
College as the New High School
In the case of my friend, there was another option available. Her company actually offered a tuition reimbursement program to help support those who wanted to continue their education. After a lot of thought about her situation, she decided to enroll in a degree program at a local university. The company paid for her tuition as long as she maintained a certain GPA.
After a short time, she was able to apply for the supervisory position she wanted because she met the “actively pursuing a degree” part of the requirements. She got the job, and she kept going to school. Now, she looks back at that decision point and is glad that she was “forced” to get a degree because she enjoyed the educational experience.
For people today, though, things aren’t quite the same. My friend was able to obtain an entry-level position with just a high school diploma and then use the company’s benefits to fund her college coursework. This used to actually be a fairly common scenario, especially for people who didn’t want to accumulate a ton of student debt before entering the workforce.
But, that was 10 years ago. Today, this college path has practically been shut off since even entry-level job postings list a college degree as a requirement. Plus, it became so easy to obtain student loans, people started following a more attractive path… but that’s a whole other story.
How Far Will This Trend Go?
A few decades ago, a high school diploma was the standard requirement for getting a decent job. Now, the standard is a college degree – and even that’s not enough in some disciplines. As we become a more educated nation, will these base guidelines continue to change? How long will it be until a master’s degree becomes the minimum requirement? Will droves of doctorate holders soon be duking it out for a job at the DMV?
What are the chances that things will start to settle down, and employers will place a lower weight on education level when reviewing job applications? After all, at the risk of sounding trite, a college degree just isn’t what it used to be. Or is it?
 Bureau of Labor Statistics, United States Department of Labor. "Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey." http://www.bls.gov/cps/demographics.htm