Do People Need Higher Education to Succeed?


Over the last year we've seen a lot of evidence that the education to employment link is broken. Today more than half of US college graduates are looking for work, college cost has risen by 40% over the last ten years, and college graduates now have more than a trillion dollars of debt.

Many jobs are in great demand (computer science, chemical engineering, statistics, health professions), but many are not. And according to Richard Arum, a sociologist at New York University, 36% of students show no improvement in critical thinking over four years of college.

I mentioned the mismatch between Education and Business late last year, and it appears that the problem continues to grow.

It does beg the big question: do young people really need a higher education degree to succeed? Bill Gates dropped out of college and it certainly didn't hold him back.

The UnCollege: Do it Yourself

I just finished reading a very interesting book entitled "Hacking your Education," written by Dale Stephens, a Thiel Fellow, young entrepreneur, and self-educated man. Dale's argument is that education is expensive, often wastes time, and not necessary for success.

He professes that you should get up at 6am every day and use every opportunity you have to develop yourself. Take an internship. Find a mentor. Start a business. And read, study, and learn.

Much of what he recommends is what we identify as traits of a "self-learner" in business. People who know how to learn (and are motivated to learn) consistently outperform their peers. The technical term for it is "learning agility," and some people are just born with it.

While the value of higher education will never go away, in today's economy we should honor and promote people who educate themselves. When you look at a new candidate, rather than look at his or her college degree, maybe you should take more time to look at his experience, ability to learn, drive, and problem solving skills.

Much of our corporate learning research shows that high performing business people often don't have fancy degrees, because in most jobs you must learn the business when you get there. Maybe you, as an employer, should look at people who are "self-taught" in a new light?

Of course higher education plays many roles in peoples' lives. It gives us perspective, reading and writing skills, and in many cases a start on a profession. And the four years in a focused environment teach discipline and hard work for many. And the Bureau of Labor Statistics datadoes show that people with college degrees have half the unemployment rate of those without.

But in today's job market college may not be perfect for everyone. And right now, given the high cost of education, we as employers need to expand our horizons about what a "great candidate" really looks like. Some of the most successful people in the world didn't finish college. Let's keep our minds open.

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