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From: Scott Carlson
Subject: What the Degree Really Means
I’m not Goldie Blumenstyk. I’m Scott Carlson, also a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education. While Goldie frequently has her sights on innovation in education, I am often thinking about the value and return on investment in higher education. Goldie asked me to pick up her Re:Learning column for another week, and so I’ll further explore the connections — and disconnections — between college and career. Please subscribe to
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I’m not Goldie Blumenstyk. I’m Scott Carlson, also a senior writer at The Chronicle of Higher Education. While Goldie frequently has her sights on innovation in education, I am often thinking about the value and return on investment in higher education. Goldie asked me to pick up her Re:Learning column for another week, and so I’ll further explore the connections — and disconnections — between college and career. Please subscribe to Goldie’s newsletter here. And here’s what’s on my mind this week:
What a diploma signals now, and how it’s changing.
Last week I wrote about Mike, who had graduated from an elite college but was stocking shelves at a grocery store. This week I want to discuss those at the opposite end of the credential-to-career spectrum: people who excel at intellectually challenging jobs yet hit ceilings in their careers because they didn’t go to college or didn’t finish.
About two weeks ago, Goldie got a letter from someone who had read her column on “reverse transfer,” a mechanism for awarding degrees to people who never finished college. The reader related the story of her sister, who faced challenges in her personal life and had to switch colleges throughout her undergraduate years. Credits from her general-education requirements didn’t transfer from institution to institution. “Eventually she had more undergraduate credits — including many in majors courses — than I did, though no degree (while I went on from B.S. to M.D./Ph.D.),” the reader wrote.
“She went on to administrative positions in departments at two major universities, where she was pretty consistently undervalued by HR and hiring managers,” the letter continued, “though her direct supervisors always came to appreciate her intelligence and skills.”
The story highlighted two problematic elements of the education-industrial complex: The first is the convoluted pathways faced by students in our nation’s education “system.” It’s really not a system at all, but a bunch of disparate pieces that still don’t interact well, even after decades of discussion about seamless transfer.
Someone I know, who never finished an undergraduate degree at a prominent state institution, was recently told by officials at a widely known institution with a fast-growing online profile that it would consider how many of her credits would transfer after she enrolled. Plop down your money, they as much as said, then you’ll find out how much more education you’re in for.
College degree as a signal
A second, more pervasive problem is the role of the college degree as a signal, and what it’s signaling. Over the past several decades, the wage premium for a college degree — the amount of money that someone with a college diploma gets paid above that of a high-school graduate — has doubled. That’s not because college graduates are making so much more than they used to, but because high-school graduates are making so much less.
Essentially, as a society, we have put a “pay to play” barrier on the path to good jobs — and we have put the certification of prospective employees in the hands of colleges, organizations often distant from employers. Perhaps it’s a sensible barrier. After all, people who graduate from college probably, on average, display more tenacity, work ethic, and intelligence than people who don’t.
Then again, anyone who studies this topic runs across puzzling and depressing examples. Enterprise Holdings, which runs a car-rental company, strongly favors applicants who have a college degree. The job can become a life raft for college graduates who floundered. When I rented a car from Enterprise a few months ago, the young branch manager who filled out my rental contract told me her story: She had earned a degree in elementary education from Towson University, a public institution in Maryland, but discovered within the first few months in the classroom that she hated being a teacher.
“I knew that Enterprise hired college grads, so I applied here,” she said with a shrug. Her husband, who also held an education degree from Towson and discovered he didn’t like teaching, drove trucks that deliver recycled oil.
Status as a signal
A college degree is merely a signal, and an increasing number of people question what that signal means. Of course, one part of that signal is the status of your alma mater. In September, Gallup and the Strada Education Network released survey results suggesting that 90 percent of employers focus on experience and skills, not college rankings, in hiring. That could be true for the vast array of companies out there.
But conversations with hiring managers at top-ranked companies reveal that those businesses often hire from elite colleges — and, in fact, solidify their hiring pipelines by building relationships with those institutions. For the most desirable jobs, prestige still matters.
We’ve all known people, much like the reader’s sister, who display innate intelligence, a solid work ethic, and mastery of relevant skills acquired through years of work. They can outperform colleagues with fancy pedigrees, yet their lack of formal education — or merely the last few credits that would earn them a degree — diminishes their standing among managers.
It makes for an odd paradox
Employers prefer applicants who have college degrees, but they complain that college graduates do not bring skills relevant to the jobs they seek.
And does that degree really represent the skills, work ethic, and thoughtfulness it’s supposed to? The public is aware that employers and colleges use opaque and expensive certifications to judge a person’s employment potential, and it’s a big source of the resentment and skepticism about higher education’s value today.
It’s also a driving force behind the phenomena of “helicopter” or “snowplow” parents. Parents realize that a credential is the coin of the realm in the job market, and that while failures or detours might offer valuable lessons, they also represent huge risks to middle-class kids, who have an equal chance of doing better financially — or worse — than their parents did.
So is that pattern changing? Recent research from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York shows that non-college-educated workers are switching jobs at the highest rate in the past four years, perhaps suggesting that employers are less concerned about an employee’s credentials. But while job satisfaction among those workers seems to be rising, the bank’s economists observed, salaries are not.
More employers are considering programs that blend work experience and formal education, with apprenticeships standing out as a leading example. Those arrangements give experience more equal standing with education, although they still require students to earn that credential.
A “people-analytics revolution”
Ryan Craig, managing director of the University Ventures investment fund and the author of A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College, sees a “people-analytics revolution” coming to the work world. Assessments will identify the key drivers of high-performing employees, he says, then correlate those qualities to people on internal career paths or new applicants. Those characteristics would be valued over “big, broad signals, like degrees,” he says.
The problem, for the time being, is that those kinds of assessments might run afoul of labor laws in the United States if done improperly, Craig writes in a recent column, and doing them well can be labor-intensive. So for now, he says, employers have passed them up, opting instead for degree requirements.
But once the pressure to hire and promote high-performing employees becomes urgent, and once students and prospective employees discover other ways to demonstrate their skills, I think the college-to-career landscape will change radically.