One Sunday afternoon in mid-2004, I sat cross-legged on the floor of my parents’ home, poring over college brochures and blank application forms. My parents stood over me, asking why I hadn’t completed any applications or even narrowed down a list of schools I’d be happy to attend. At that moment, all I could do was cry.
I didn’t want to go to college. I wasn’t ready. “You’re going,” my father told me. “End of discussion.” His reasoning? It was the only way I’d be able to get a job and be successful.
But with some of the top companies in the world no longer requiring college degrees for a number of their job openings, it’s time for us to rethink how much value we place on a formal advanced education outside of certain specialized fields. Even at The Predictive Index®, a college degree isn’t an immediate qualifier or disqualifier to join our team.
So, why are we still so hung up on earning college degrees?
“Talent is equally distributed, opportunity is not.”
I first heard this quote from Leila Janah, CEO of Sama Group, paraphrased in an advertisement for Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), and it has stayed with me ever since.
With the rising costs of higher education creating an economic burden on entire generations, weighing the pros and cons of pursuing an advanced degree means that going to college can’t be a reality for everyone. When we require college degrees, how many talented, high-potential people lose out on opportunities? And how many companies lose out on opportunities to hire the right people?
Our paths aren’t always the same.
One of the smartest, most talented people I’ve ever worked with recently revealed to me she didn’t have a college degree. Narrow-mindedly, my first thought was, “That can’t be true.”
Here’s someone I revere, whom I look up to and rely on for professional guidance or another set of eyes on a regular basis. She can write 500 words requiring minimal editing in what seems like a heartbeat. She’s organized, driven, reliable, and isn’t afraid to hold others accountable.
When I asked her why she decided against going to college, she quickly responded: “They didn’t offer me a good scholarship, and I didn’t want to pay money for something that wasn’t guaranteed to give me a return on my investment.”
Our potential is linked to much more than past academic performance or milestones.
While we cannot undersell the importance of education, what we can do is reframe our thinking around our own learning journeys and how education factors into our professional successes. It’s essential we think about the whole person when we look for potential—not just one facet of someone’s experience.
By the time we reach adulthood, our individual behavioral needs and drives become ingrained in who we are. Our cognitive abilities, too, fall into this category. When it comes to job fit, our ability to process information and adapt—as well as our alignment to the behavioral demands of a particular role—will determine our success in it. The more we can operate without unnecessary friction, the more likely we are to not only be good at what we do, but enjoy it, too.
Our values play an important role in our potential, too. And so it’s important we hire in alignment with our organizational cultural values. A college degree will not teach someone to value reliability or teamwork, but someone who intrinsically values those things will do well in an environment that similarly values them.
When it comes to skills and experience, education plays a role. But how we acquire knowledge over time and build our resumes does not necessarily need to stem from an academic institution. With the exception of some specialized functions, we can learn on the job to be the best we can be.
When I asked my colleague about the No. 1 thing that helped her realize success, she simply said: “I’m just willing to jump into anything and learn how to do it.”
When it comes to college, we need to make a decision that’s right for us individually.
I ended up going to college and earning a four-year liberal arts degree. It may not have been the right choice for me at the time, but it ultimately was the choice I made. I’m grateful for the opportunities I’ve had over the years, and I still have affection for my alma mater.
But I look at the changing economic landscape and how industry titans are responding in kind. I think of my colleague who spoke about how she benefited from having good mentors at the right time, and I wonder: How much longer will we propagate the myth of a college degree as our best path to success?
Perhaps we’re already on our way to eliminating it in favor of what matters.
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