Education is More Than a Piece of Paper


I spent a little time today reading through the pros and cons of higher education.  Some of the websites and blogs are purely opinions thrown up as fact while other dialog is heavily peppered with research.  Check out for one example of intellectual discussions of the value of higher education.

I have heard it so many times. “Why do I need a Bachelor’s degree? It’s just a piece of paper.”  While I agree that I don’t use all of my education to the fullest extent, a formal education provides much more than just a piece of paper. And if you made it through college without increasing your knowledge base, you are either wicked smart or your college kind of sucked.

I conducted an informal survey of some of my friends and colleagues over the past two weeks.  I proposed the following two scenarios.  Oh, by the way, I had to caveat my questions by saying they had to hire without meeting the person.  A person’s behavior during the interview process heavily influences the hire/reject decision.  We tend to want to be around people who communicate (verbally and non-verbally) the way we do.  Therefore, my initial decision to reject can be overridden if the prospective employee communicates like me.

Scenario #1:  You are hiring someone who will interface with your office several times a week.  An undergraduate degree is not mandatory but highly desired.  Two individuals have applied.  Both are the same gender and 23 years old.  Neither have direct experience with the specific job but, based on past job and volunteer experience, they meet the minimum requirements for the position.  The only significant difference between the two is their formal education; one has an undergraduate degree and the other does not.  Which candidate would you hire?  Why?

Answers for Scenario #1:  The survey respondents having a college degree said they would hire the college graduate.  Reasons included diverse interpersonal experiences, experience working on small projects and/or teams, and experience meeting immovable deadlines.  Survey respondents without college degrees said they would hire the candidate without a college degree.  One respondent said he would be able to communicate better than with the undergraduate.  Another cited the probability that the college graduate would use the job as a stepping stone to “bigger and better things”.

Scenario #2:  You are hiring someone who will interface with your office several times a week.  An undergraduate degree is not mandatory but highly desired.  Two individuals have applied.  Both are the same gender and 23 years old.  One candidate has an undergraduate degree directly related to the job position but no direct work experience.  The other has no education past high school but has 4 years of direct experience with another company.  Which candidate would you hire?  Why?

Answers for Scenario #2:  Survey respondents with college degrees who work in highly technical fields still said they would hire the college graduate.  The thought process is the candidate with the college degree would have a solid base of knowledge with which to build upon.  Survey respondents who did not work in highly technical fields (whether they held a college degree or not) said they would go with the candidate with 4 years of direct experience.

So, where do I stand?  I would pick the college graduate for both scenarios.  Why?  College, if properly leveraged, does more than just prepare you to perform a job.  In fact, I believe only vocational colleges do a good job preparing someone to perform a specific job.  A college degree, however, shows me a few things:

1. Proactive Behavior

2. Resilience

3. Ability to meet multiple deadlines and juggle conflicting priorities

4. How to work within a team

Proactive Behaviors:  It is easy to fall into the groove of the daily grind.  We become zombies of the 9-5 tempo and fail to grow as employees.  This is not proactive behavior; this is mediocrity.  College is different because students rarely get all of their classes to fall neatly into place especially if they don’t proactively advocate for themselves.  They rush from class to class and have to proactively seek out study time, study partners, and work a job around their class schedule.  This is the opposite of mediocrity; this is a combination of proactivity and resilience.

Resilience:  College students get used to being told they are wrong or that their effort is substandard.  Most, but not all, realize that failing to meet the minimum standard sucks but no one dies or goes to jail as a result.  We learn how to stretch beyond our current abilities so we make a better grade or perform above par.  This type of resilience (often called “thick skinned”) encourages personnel to take on projects with calculated risks.  Resilient employees keep pushing forward in the face of challenge in order to (1) find money to pay for the proposed expansion, (2) seek an innovative solution to an old problem, and (3) rebound quickly after a client has fired the firm.

Deadlines & Priorities:  Most of us have to meet deadlines and many of us have to juggle conflicting priorities.  It is hard to learn all of this while simultaneously hoping you don’t get fired.  After four years of trying to determine whether you should study for a test in your core classes or a test for your elective class, you get a really good sense of where your priorities should lay.  Additionally, each professor is slightly different so you get to practice all of your juggling skills with many different personalities.

Team Work:  I think this is my favorite reason.  As an employee, you probably have co-workers, a boss, and ancillary offices and departments.  Unfortunately, you seldom find opportunities to play the co-worker, boss, and ancillary support within the same calendar year.  College students must work in groups to finish projects, experiments, etc. and most students get to play these parts multiple times during their college years.  You may be a project lead in one of your core classes but a team member in an elective class (when the subject is not within your current expertise).  This gives college students multiple opportunities to try on “leader” and “member” hats before stepping into the corporate construct and climbing the ladder of success.

People without college degrees can also learn these things simply from living life but it is hard to pack it into 4 years or articulate it in a resume.  Before you say anything about communicating this in the interview, you must remember that hiring offices receive 20-100 applications and they must draw the line somewhere before the interview process begins.  Make sure your name is above the cut line by investing in formal education either with a traditional, community, or vocational college.

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