At no time in history has a college education been more accessible to more people. Record numbers of young adults and older adults are taking college courses. They have a multitude of options that range from traditional colleges and universities to junior colleges to a burgeoning array of online programs and night schools. Indeed, it’s the golden era of higher education. This would suggest that college degrees are more important than ever for career success, and perhaps even a requirement.
However, in the rush to earn a college degree, few people are stopping to ask the crucial questions: Is it worth it? Will the degree get me where I want to go in my career? Why am I doing this?
The truth is that for many people, a college degree is not necessary for them to achieve career success. And it’s certainly not necessary for them to achieve success in the more important realm: the rest of their lives outside of their jobs.
A college degree is but one path forward. It is not the only path. Most people will have multiple careers over working lives of 30-50 years. The coursework that they took as undergraduates will have little or no relation to the careers that they follow.
To understand whether a college degree is essential for success, it’s important to think about what a degree is, and is not. A college degree is a mark of distinction, a proof to the outside world that the certificate holder has been able to master a certain type of learning to at least a minimum level of competence. It shows that a person has a willingness and an ability to begin a program and to finish it – regardless of the roadblocks that are encountered. The degree also indicates that the degree-holder is relatively current in a particular subject, that is, whatever he or she majored in. So if the degree-holder is seeking a job in a particular field, a degree might indicate that the person has at least some baseline knowledge in that field.
Those things that a degree represents are important. But they are not the personal traits or characteristics that really correlate to success in a career. What really matters in a career are creativity, adaptability, honesty, integrity, and effort. For the most part, a college degree does not signal whether a person has those traits. In some circumstances, the college experience can be an opportunity to develop and demonstrate those strengths, but it’s often not the situation. For a typical college degree, a person has learned to memorize some rote facts and produce “research” papers or projects that are compilations of others’ research. That doesn’t indicate in any way how a person will function in the real world, where the assignments are determined by reality, not by the arbitrary standards of a professor in a classroom.
In short, a person needs to learn how to accept responsibilty for his or her actions in the real world, and a college degree doesn’t indicate whether a person is really able to do that. Only experience with a person demonstrates his or her true character.