Don’t Give Non-College Grads the Third Degree

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Yep, there they are, right after the section about your name and where you live – the questions on the job application that many candidates over the years have dreaded seeing:

– “What is the name and location of the college you attended?”
– “How many years did you attend?”
– “What was your major? What degree did you receive?”

For college grads, having to fill out information about their post-high school education is no big deal. But for those who didn’t attend or finish college, it’s a hurdle they’re acutely aware of, knowing the lack of a degree could disqualify them for the job.

But perhaps, depending on the position they’re seeking, it shouldn’t be.

Don’t get us wrong. Higher education can be an accurate and reliable indicator of a motivated, intelligent achiever who could be the ideal job candidate.

For those students who knew in their late teens exactly what career they wanted to pursue, college courses that provided the training and education necessary to succeed in their career were vital.

But hiring managers may want to remember that, for many job seekers, college was an unrealistic aspiration when they were young.

A lot of them had to work immediately after graduating high school because their parents needed their help. Whether working on their folks’ farm, in their retail store or factory, or in the family’s grocery store, the child’s obligation was to help their parents make ends meet.

College was for kids from families who could afford the tuition. Those kids went to college either because they didn’t yet know what to do with their lives, everyone else was going, their parents demanded it, or they actually wanted to learn more.

Government financial assistance programs used to put college within reach for many Americans. The idea of getting a degree and a better job became less of a pipe dream and more of a reality for many thousands.

And businesses became eager to recruit candidates who had the zeal to get at least four additional years of education under their belt. In fact, many of them required it.

Many still do. “Bachelor’s degree or higher” or MBA strongly preferred” now appears on a great many job descriptions.
And therein lies the problem.

An article in the New York Times  profiled a law firm that required all its employees – from the receptionist to the guy who delivers the mail – to have a college degree.

The firm said that having that background created a form of camaraderie. The firm’s managing partner, Adam Slipakoff, said: “You know, if we had someone here with just a G.E.D. or something, I can see how they might feel slighted by the social atmosphere here,” he says. “There really is something sort of cohesive or binding about the fact that all of us went to college.”

Among those who may – or may not – have felt slighted would be Bill Gates, who dropped out of Harvard. Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, drop-outs both, would be in this ostracized group. Ted Turner was expelled from Brown for having a girl in his dorm room. Ralph Lauren dropped out to serve in the US Army. Abe Lincoln quit school when he was 12.

Few could fault these individuals who applied their drive and intelligence without a degree. And the likelihood is great that there are countless thousands of highly-qualified job candidates out there today who would make ideal employees even though they didn’t finish college.

Consider that today, it’s more expensive than ever for students to be able to afford to graduate with a Bachelor’s, let alone a Master’s or a Doctoral degree. “There are a great number of complicated, interlocking reasons that a bachelor’s degree costs so much more today than it used to. And dwindling government subsidies are one of the key issues. ”

Depending on the school and how much seat time they’ve accumulated, grads often find themselves $100,000 or significantly more in debt before they even start their careers.

Many drop out, not because they aren’t smart enough or can’t hack the hard work, but simply because they just can’t afford it. That hardly speaks to their aptitude or work ethic.

Something else to consider: It’s a rapidly-changing world and what the college-educated applicant sitting before you studied may be entirely outdated and therefore useless.

This is especially true for marketing, advertising, and other fields employing media: “If you graduated this spring, you started college when many now-common marketing concepts – and the tools to practice them – had hardly been envisioned. The authors of your textbooks probably started their drafts when SEO was in its infancy and YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook hadn’t been launched .”

Perhaps hiring managers should place even greater emphasis on other elements in the interview process and particularly criteria covered by comprehensive background checks.

Cumulative work experience may carry more weight than a degree in a field unrelated to the job. A professional background check can reveal exceptional credentials regarding a candidate’s conduct on a previous job that’s related to the position to which they are applying.

Further, well curated professional reference questions crafted to elicit and evaluate responses indicative of your corporate culture and the position to which you are hiring can offer real world insight into your candidate’s professional demeanor and capabilities.

In addition, careful credit screening done by a highly-regarded background check company could prove of significant value for candidates in certain positions, especially when they don’t have a degree.

While having graduated from a respected educational institution is de rigeur for many fields including healthcare, energy, and other disciplines, a Bachelor’s or Master’s by itself may not reveal a candidate’s true and full potential.

A thorough evaluation of the candidate as a complete person, especially when a thorough background check may reveal less-obvious talents pertinent to the position, should be carefully balanced with a requirement for a degree of any kind.

Who knows, you may be hiring the next Michael Dell, who dropped out of college at 19, or today’s Henry Ford, who never even finished high school.

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Lewis Lustman

Lewis Lustman is a content marketer who enjoys developing materials that engage, inform, challenge, and hopefully entertain my audience. Lewis is a former journalist for Los Angeles Magazine and the Los Angeles Times, and has worked for a number of leading advertising, marketing, technology, and PR firms over the years. Interested in a topic that he hasn't yet tackled? Drop him a line in the comments section!

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