We all agree that there is a small group of careers that require college degrees.
Most are in medicine, law or teaching. Medical doctors need at least two degrees plus medical school and years of specialized training. Lawyers generally need a four-year degree, plus three years of law school. Both fields require a passing grade on a tough state examination.
Most boards of education require public school teachers to hold both a bachelor’s of science in education degree as well a state teaching certificate. The common features here are the requirements for one or more college degrees, state-issued licenses, continuing training, state board examinations and peer review.
Many occupations do require specialized training above the high school level. The minimum entry qualifications to fly for an airline often include earning private, commercial, instrument and multiengine ratings, as well as an airline transport pilot certificate. There are minimum standards for the number of hours flown, minimum and maximum age limits and an annual medical evaluation.
Appropriately, none of these requirements demands a college degree program to achieve. But does every good job in the U.S. require a college degree? Spending a few minutes on almost any online job posting site will lead to that conclusion.
A college degree may not actually be required to do a particular job, but employers often initially screen candidates on that basis. How did that come to pass?
I think I know. Early in my career, my boss asked me to sort through several hundred resumés to find the best candidates to fill a new position. I read the first handful thoroughly, and soon realized that it would take two full days to get through the whole stack, working without a break. So I screened the applications into two piles: those with college degrees and those without. Soon my stack was cut by half.
My reasoning, which seemed so valid at the time, was, looking back, pretty thin: I figured that a candidate with a four-year degree was somehow “worth” more consideration than one with three years or less of college. Surely the guy who stuck it out wouldn’t cut and run when the going got tough?
The reality was quite different. In my 45-year career, I’ve found little correlation between those having a college degree and those without, especially in important areas such as honesty, a good work ethic, great rapport with co-workers and customers, and a “can do” attitude toward every challenge.
I’m aware that college graduates make more money over a lifetime than high school graduates. But I’m also aware that requiring a college degree for a job that really doesn’t need it has led to massive student loan debt — $1.2 trillion and climbing. And college debt is the worst kind of debt to saddle a young person with, as it’s not dischargeable in bankruptcy.
Saddest of all are the young people who leave college without a degree, owing thousands of dollars for, essentially, nothing. Three of the best vice presidents I’ve had the pleasure to work with started but did not finish college for reasons we’d all understand.
Years ago I would have never considered any of them for the positions they later filled with such distinction. For me, the solution is clear: job descriptions should only require a college degree when the duties of that position actually require it.
Michael L. Pandzik of Shawnee was the founding president and chief executive officer of the National Cable Television Cooperative, headquartered in Lenexa. He is also a retired captain in the U.S. Navy Reserve. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.