A crowd of graduating students in cap and gown from the back

Do you still need an education?

Written by Elizabeth Bromstein
Posted on February 25, 2014

You graduate high school, you go to university, you get a job. It’s the way it’s been done in middle class North America since I was a kid. Is this still the best way?

These days, there are millions of people out there with undergraduate degrees, with more and more emerging each year, so a bachelor’s degree is worth less than it was when fewer people were getting them. As a result, more employers are looking for candidates with higher degrees. But it doesn’t make sense from a candidate’s point of view to keep raising the bar, as people dig themselves deeper into debt.

While Cecilia Brain, an economist and senior policy analyst for the Council of Ontario Universities argues otherwise, The Financial Post reported in 2013 that the value of an education was “dropping fast.” The paper reported that the unemployment rate among university graduates was only 1.7% percentage points lower than high school graduates, and that the situation was particularly dire for fine arts and applied arts students.

The solution? Choose your major wisely (engineering grads had “a 117% wage premium to high school graduates, even after paying for their degrees,” said the report). Or, could you skip the university thing entirely?

This obviously isn’t an option in some fields. You’ll always need a university degree to be a doctor, a lawyer, or a biochemist, for example. But for jobs in sales, administration, skilled trades, non-profit, software development, media, and many other areas, you might not. As I have noted before, I know college teachers, researchers, fundraisers, business managers, software developers, editors, designers, and people in many other positions who either don’t have degrees or whose degrees are in something completely different from what they do.

A new study from Career Glider of workers across the U.S., finds that one third claim their college degrees were a “complete waste of time and money.”

Sunil Sani, Career Glider’s CEO, says “Having a degree of some sort helps, but that doesn’t necessarily mean holding the traditional four-year college degree we’ve all been told we need. The skills companies are looking for in this job market are specialized ones that you can often acquire through a few months of specific training courses or on the job. A lot of these are skills we’re not picking up in the traditional college curriculum and that are constantly changing with technology. If you can secure these skills either through some previous experience or new training, many companies aren’t going to care about your ‘formal’ education.”

He adds, “Another way to get ahead is to step up and take on special projects, either at your current place of employment or with volunteer opportunities in your community. Both will expose you to a whole new set of skills, project management techniques and, most importantly, other networking contacts.”

And you don’t need to be in a degree program to attend university. Often, you can audit as many courses as you like, a la Steve Jobs (who famously had no degree), and MIT now offers the materials for over 2,100 courses online, for free. Learning is becoming increasingly democratized.

Don’t misunderstand. Many employers will still require that you have a degree, but a poll of hiring managers found that Sani’s comments stand. Not everyone requires it.

Shaul Kuper of Destiny Solutions says, “A university degree used to be a necessity because it was the only way to access content. Today, content is so freely available that this is no longer the case. When hiring, we look for people who are able to demonstrate competencies, and while a degree is one way to do this, it isn’t the only way. If a potential hire has the skills we are after, then whether or not they have a degree is irrelevant.”

And Scott Harris of Mustang Marketing says, “I would always lean toward hiring someone with a college degree. However, if those same four years were invested doing something unusual or spectacular like a surfing tour, the Peace Corps, trying to make a band work, something that shows a dedication to a particular talent or area of interest, I might reconsider. Hiring someone is not about rewarding them for what they have accomplished, but rather to use their past efforts as an indicator of future success.”

If you do decide to skip the degree – or you already have skipped it – it’s important to realize that you have to forge your own path and not rest on your laurels.

Here are five things you must do to make it without a university degree:

    1.Be self-motivated: Without paper deadlines, exams and the threat of a wasted student loan hanging over your head, you have to motivate yourself. Set your own goals and deadlines and respect them as you would those set for you by an institution.

    2.Be self-taught: Read and learn. Take courses, learn online. Become an expert in something, or more than one thing. University is not the only place to learn.

    3.Develop your skills: Learn to code, develop software, analyze data, make cakes, write, speak Chinese, use math, draw, create spreadsheets, use Photoshop, program, mix drinks, create a PowerPoint, sew, build a cabinet. I know a guy who taught himself how to make violins. The first one didn’t sound so good. So, he made another one.

    4.Be innovative: Look for opportunities that you can create yourself, a niche that only you can fill. These days, community managers who do social media are a dime a dozen, but there was a time when social media was a specialized skill and companies need people who could do it for them. It’s basically a role invented by people who like to use Facebook and Twitter. What can you do that companies would find valuable?

    5.Network, network, network: Get to know as many people from as many walks of life as you possibly can, and in the words of Workopolis’ Peter Harris, “Be as nice as possible to every person you meet along the way.” If lots of people know and like you, and are aware that you are motivated, well read, highly skilled and innovative, someone will want you to work for them.