A Higher Ed Sea Change Could Impact Your Degree Decision

Adobe Stock

“Get a college degree to get a good job," the old saying goes. But is that advice still valid? Obviously, getting a college degree can lead to a good job, but a lot of students want to know whether it's a requirement.

What inspired my post today is an article in Investor's Business Daily: The Higher Education Bubble Is Bursting — And That's A Good Thing, where I read this:

A good indication of a tightening labor market is the fact that several major corporations have dropped their college degree requirements ... Job recruiting site Glassdoor recently reported that companies like Google, Apple, IBM, Bank of America no longer require that applicants have a college degree.

When jobs were scarce and unemployed workers plentiful, requiring a college degree might have made some sense, if only to easily weed out most applicants. When workers are scarce, companies can't be so picky.

To support that Glassdoor report, which I'll get to shortly, here's an interesting article from National Review: Apple, Google, et al. Strike a Blow against the College Cartel. To wit:

Some of America's biggest companies have stopped requiring college degrees for many entry- and mid-level jobs. Here's hoping others follow suit ... A comprehensive 2017 study by researchers at Harvard Business School found that college graduates filling middle-skill positions cost more to employ, have higher turnover rates, tend to be less engaged and are no more productive than high school graduates doing the same job. The long-term consequences of degree inflation look to be even worse, as employers continue to pay a premium for a college-educated workforce even when filling positions that non-credentialed workers could just as easily do, leading ever more students to incur the costs of pursuing a degree.

Could This Be A Sea Change?

I've written before about the assumption that most think that a college degree is needed to be happy and successful in one's life work. Having a college degree has been a definite benefit for me and our children. But times have changed, as they always do. The pendulum swings, slowly at times, but it does swing to and fro. Now it appears that companies are looking for essential practical skills -- employees who are reliable and productive, not necessarily those with fastidious knowledge of English literature.

About Glassdoor: In its report, 15 More Companies That No Longer Require a Degree—Apply Now, Glassdoor notes:

With college tuition soaring nationwide, many Americans don't have the time or money to earn a college degree. However, that doesn't mean your job prospects are diminished. Increasingly, there are many companies offering well-paying jobs to those with non-traditional education or a high-school diploma.

“When you look at people who don't go to school and make their way in the world, those are exceptional human beings. And we should do everything we can to find those people," said Google's former SVP of People Operations Laszlo Bock.

“Academic qualifications will still be taken into account and indeed remain an important consideration when assessing candidates as a whole, but will no longer act as a barrier to getting a foot in the door," added Maggie Stilwell, Ernst and Young's managing partner for talent.

I wonder how this situation would have affected me, had it existed when, as a teenager, I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life. I went to college and my parents and I took on loan debt. We should all be aware of the consequences of heavy loan debt. I've certainly railed on about that here.

At the core of this “Do I really need to go to college?" issue is, I think, the matter of ROI: Return on investment. Depending on a family's individual financial circumstances, it's possible to spend up to almost $300,000 for an elite degree. Don't believe me? Let's look at the hard numbers from this year's number one-ranked (and desperately sought after) Ivy League university, Princeton: “The estimated* cost of attendance for 2019-20 is $73,450…"

There's your $300,000. Obviously, not every family pays this quarter-million-dollar-plus amount, but even with the generous financial aid that schools like Princeton offer, loan debt can be significant, if not crippling.

As I've mentioned before, I almost didn't go to college. I guess I was like many high schoolers these days who don't know which direction to pursue. I did have a small interest in computers (this was back when computers filled large warehouses, ran on vacuum tubes and generated more heat than global warming), so early in my senior year, I investigated the “Computer Systems Institute" in Pittsburgh, Pa. I took the entrance exam, was accepted (I don't recall that they were as selective as the Ivies), but never enrolled.

As it turned out, I eventually did go to college, mainly as a result of my ability to hit a tennis ball with some decent effectiveness. However, I often wonder what path my life would have taken had I not gone to a four-year college and, instead, pursued my life's work through a different set of paths (the great game of “What if?") This, of course, raises the inevitable question: Is college right (or necessary) for everyone?

The above links and text excerpts clearly point to the fact that college isn't necessary for everyone, so that should answer that part of the question. Whether it's “right" or not is a more complicated issue and worthy of a more subtle examination about personal life preferences, matching, and other factors. Good fodder for another post.

What Are the Trends Saying?

I'm certainly not anti-college, far from it, but current national economic trends are pointing the way to a different corporate culture. If you do some research, you'll find out that there are far more job openings than people to fill them. In support of that contention: Employers having a tough time finding qualified candidates, survey says. It's a big company headache:

Recruiters, it's not all in your head — a recent Glassdoor survey found that a whopping 76 percent of recruiters say the struggle to find qualified candidates is their No. 1 complaint.

The overwhelming majority of recruiters (88 percent) said their ideal candidate is an informed candidate — which they defined as an applicant who's done their homework about the company, recognizes their applicable skill set for the job, educates themselves about the job role, understands the company's style and values and has an understanding of the benefits and salary they will be able to expect from the role.

The key here, as it applies to companies dropping the college degree requirement, is that hirable candidates have “... done their homework about the company, recognize[d] their applicable skill set for the job, educate[d] themselves about the job role [and] unders[tood] the company's style and values …" You can surely do this without a college degree, if you're so motivated. Accordingly, then:

Attention Confused, Unfocused Or Higher-Education-Questioning High Schoolers

“… Good-paying jobs that require real skills, like electricians, carpenters, and so on, are going begging. The Associated General Contractors of America says that 70 percent of construction companies are having trouble finding qualified workers. The Department of Education forecasts that the next five years will see 68 percent more infrastructure job openings than workers with the skills to fill them.

If the current corporate trend away from college requirements catches on, it would go far to burst the higher education bubble. And that would be a very good thing. For students, their parents, taxpayers. And for the economy."

Scanning the higher educational horizon, I see even more changes on the way. Off the top of my head, I see a continuing exit (or at least shrinkage) of small, relatively obscure liberal arts colleges due to declining enrollment. Watch for more colleges lowering their tuition in efforts to appear more affordable. Plus, eventually, there likely will be a massive uprising against the ever-escalating price of a college degree.

There are sure to be more changes ahead, but those are just what I see percolating inside my crystal ball right now. The sea change is already underway. Perhaps the prudent message for higher educators everywhere should be "man the lifeboats!"