Occasionally I get questions about college, because it delays your entry into the workforce a good four or five years. So why is a college degree important?
While you don’t need a college degree to succeed, strictly speaking, it helps.
Exceptional people don’t need a degree
There are exceptional people who don’t have college degrees and have had super successful careers. Bill Gates is the most extreme example. Two people who helped me attain CISSP certification and really helped my career don’t have degrees. For that matter, I know someone who’s been rather successful who doesn’t even have a high school diploma, let alone a college degree.
But the root word for exceptional is exception. Those guys learned what they needed to learn some other way and they have a laundry list of accomplishments to back it up. If any of them ever need a job, they can call one of a dozen people who can get them through HR.
The rest of us need to get through HR, which can be tough. The closer you match the ideal candidate, the more likely you are to make the cut. Having that degree is one of those attributes of HR’s ideal candidate.
What a college degree does for you
More education doesn’t always mean more wages, but there’s definitely some correlation. Here’s what you can expect to make with varying degrees of education:
- No high school diploma: $25,000
- High school diploma: $35,000
- Some college: $38,000
- Associates degree: $41,000
- Bachelors degree: $59,000
I know it stinks to go to school four years and earn peanuts working 10 hours a week while your buddies are making 25 or 35 grand. But once you make it into the workforce, on average, it takes about six years to make up the difference. If you do the math through the age of 65, it works out to $1,645,000 earned over the course of a career for a high school graduate vs $2,478,000 for a college graduate, even with the college graduate working four less years.
College costs a lot of money, but it doesn’t cost 800 grand.
The unemployment rate for college graduates is also lower. For those with a high school diploma, the unemployment rate is 5.4%. For those with bachelors degrees, it’s 2.8%.
Lower unemployment rates mean less time in between jobs when times get tough.
What you learn in college
You learn a number of things in college, and not all of it comes out of textbooks. One advantage of the traditional model of education, where you go off to school at 18 and live with minimal adult supervision is that you learn how to deal with ever increasing levels of responsibility with minimal accountability.
Everyone handles that differently. I knew people who didn’t make it through their first semester. I knew guys who were seniors when I was a freshman, and we ended up graduating the same year. With our Bachelors degrees. I also knew a guy who was nine years older than me. He took a class most semesters. When I graduated, he wasn’t much closer to getting a degree than he’d been when I first showed up.
About half of us got through. We figured out that nobody was going to make us go to class and nobody was going to make us do the work. We identified the people around us who seemed to do a good job of balancing things and we learned from them. They balanced going to class, studying, a job, some extracurricular activities, and a social life. We learned how to do the same. Some of us were better at it than others.
It ended up being really good for networking. Who you know makes a difference, and you meet a lot of people in college.
Learning to think critically
But there was more. We also learned about the world around us. We learned that not everyone has the same experiences we do. Our classmates and our professors challenged us on things. We learned that some things we thought we knew were wrong.
We learned that sometimes you can fake your way through things and sometimes you can’t. Sometimes you can cram and sometimes you can’t. More often than not, it took a lot of slow and steady work and planning to get things done right.
That’s why employers often just want you to have a degree, even if it’s in an unrelated field. They want someone who made it through that experience. I think there’s another thing they want too.
How a degree helps you deal with the world of business
We put a lot of emphasis on colleges and universities teaching STEM: science, technology, engineering, and math. Knowledge of the hard sciences allows one to build things by breaking concepts down into smaller problems and applying the scientific method to solving them, and using abstract thinking to pull it all together.
You certainly can find self-taught engineers. But an education from an accredited college or university ensures you’ve covered some agreed-upon set of fundamentals.
But colleges and universities also teach a lot of soft skills. You can lump writing and speaking and even psychology into the soft skills category. Engineering types hate taking these classes, but they’re in the curriculum for a reason. The company I work for had a long discussion at its last company-wide meeting about ensuring all of its technical analysts have the soft skills they need to progress in their jobs and their careers. The knowledge and wisdom you glean from analyzing gigabytes of data isn’t worth much if you can’t communicate it.
Frequently it still takes a few years to put it all together, especially if you don’t give a presentation every day.
Why is a college degree important, in conclusion?
Getting a college degree doesn’t guarantee everything about your career will go swimmingly. For example, about a year ago a job opened up at a company I always wanted to work for. It was in my field of specialty, even. I applied, expecting nobody else with half my qualifications would apply. And I never got a phone call.
But it’s something you can do to stack the odds in your favor. We can’t control our own destiny. But we have the ability to influence it. And you’ll be hard pressed to find something that has the same positive influence on your career as that degree. I’ll dare say there’s nothing as universally positive as the degree. And the labor force isn’t getting any easier to navigate. So when you can stack the odds in your favor by going to school for four years, it’s worth it.