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How Important is a College Degree?

Posted on Posted in Strategy

Several decades ago, people routinely retired from the same job they’d started just out of school. They were loyal to the company, who took care of them at the end, complete with a pension and a gold watch. Business has changed a lot since those days. In modern times, people change jobs 10-15 times over their working lives and often spend five years or less at a given company. This means what it takes to be successful in business has shifted. Where once, education and experience ruled, a number of other factors have come into play.

Job Search Skills and Networking

With people changing jobs and even careers so frequently, an increased amount of effort must be spent on transition — knowing how and where to look for a job and keeping your business and personal networks healthy. The job search, which used to be a once- or twice-a-lifetime occurrence has now become an every-five-years thing.

Tracking and Adjusting to Market Trends

The marketplace shifts more quickly than it did thirty years ago, as well. The hot skill everyone company is looking to hire today will be twisting in the wind tomorrow. It’s vital to stay on top of those trends, when you pull up stakes and move companies often, taking courses and gaining experience in sought-after skill sets.

So, with all of these new skills figuring so prominently in to the job search, where does that leave education and experience? There is no simple answer; it depends on a dizzying array of factors.

Your Chosen Field

Depending on the industry, some may favor experience over education or vice versa. In sales, for example, a proven track record is usually more important than a degree. In the high-tech industry, however, companies often prefer recent college grads who have just mastered the latest and greatest.


This is two-fold — your school’s reputation and yours. In many industries, a degree from a prominent university can give you a leg up, while one from a lesser school may not help much. On the experience side, your reputation matters as well. It’s not enough these days to just show up and clock in for eight hours; if you have a track record for being reliable, a problem-solver, innovative and friendly, that may trump an unproven degree.


There are fields, of course, for which you must have a degree to get the job — nursing, law, teaching, etc. But some companies, even in other fields, still stand fast on requiring a diploma, while others allow you to substitute a certain number of years of experience.

So, while the stats make it look cut and dry (The department of labor reports a lower incidence of unemployment for those with degrees), it’s not that simple. College debt is sky rocketing and people are struggling to pay off their student loans for years or even decades after they graduate. Bottom line: consider your field, stay on top of what is sought after in the marketplace, network and make decisions about education mindfully.

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Photo credit: By Joe Hall –, CC BY 2.0,