The Value of Degrees — Comp + Coffee: Ep. 19

If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: you need a college degree to succeed in today’s job market.

We beat that idea into the ground — but how true is it?

Degrees are beneficial, no argument there, but are they always a necessity? Especially as tuition rates rise and student loans pile up?

In this episode of Comp + Coffee, we’re talking about how we value degrees in this day and age and how this valuation will impact compensation managers.

P.S.: Like what you hear? Be sure to subscribe – and don’t forget to give us a 5-star rating!

For a full transcript of the episode, see below.



Shawn LaVana: And we’re live Bill.

Bill Coleman: Hello, Shawn.

Shawn: Welcome to the podcast.

Kaite Rosa: Don’t sound so excited.

Shawn: For any of you out there in listener land, Bill is hyped today. He was doing burpees before we started just to get himself amped up.

Kaite: [laughs]

Shawn: As you can tell. We have a lot to cover today. I’m joined today as always by the good Bill Coleman.

Bill: Good morning, Shawn, or good afternoon, Shawn.

Shawn: Good day.

Bill: Good day.

Kaite: Good day, sir.

Shawn: Good day to you sir. I’m also joined by her second podcast back.

Kaite: Hello. Kaite Rosa.

Shawn: Kaite Rosa, thank you for joining us.

Kaite: Thanks for having me, guys.

Shawn: I thought what could be interesting to talk about today is a topic that’s been top of mind for me but also seems to be coming up more and more, and I’m curious on your takes. Just like everything else here, we’re interested in the audience’s feedback as well, so leave your comments, and let us know your takes on these things.

The key topic today is the value of college degrees, which we were just interviewing a bunch of people here this morning, and that came up as a topic. Let’s just get the biases out of the way first. Every single one of us sitting in this room right now has a college degree.

Kaite: Correct, and you both have master’s. I do not.

Bill: Incorrect.

Kaite: You don’t?

Bill: I do not.

Kaite: What? I just made an assumption.

Shawn: I got something over Bill: an artificial degree that means nothing.

Kaite: You’re so smart. I don’t know. I just assumed you did.

Bill: Thank you.

Kaite: You’re welcome.

Shawn: We have a bias, but one of the things that I’m always intrigued about is one of the things that came up in an interview earlier today, but this is my belief anyway is I was asking people why they chose the school they chose. One of the pieces of feedback came in a couple different ways. They got scholarships there, or it was a lower cost school. All valid and really good reasons especially with the way that economics have gone with college and universities lately. I don’t know that it’s sustainable.

Kaite: We should note that all the people you were speaking with today were college students —

Shawn: Correct

Kaite: — for a summer internship program.

Shawn: I don’t go around asking everybody that. One of my beliefs is that I think in the future because of the structural inefficiencies of college, you’re going to see the requirement for that drop because I think you could easily have– There’s a couple of different ways it’s being attacked, massive online open courses or MOOCs. Secondly though, you can almost develop an apprenticeship just like you have in skilled labor where maybe somebody comes straight from high school and wants to learn business or marketing or comp, and they are educated specifically in that at the company’s expense I guess for a couple of years. Then it’s up to them to just provide that value back.

I think what you’re looking at is and the reason this is coming up is there is a LinkedIn post recently about job descriptions that require college experience or require you to have a degree, so I want to talk about all of these. I don’t think you should. I think it’s more about your experience, but what that goes hand in hand with is you should be able to have a way to get that experience that isn’t dependent on a college degree.

Kaite: I feel like I would value real-life experience over straight up– If you’re a smart person and you are passionate about whatever field you’re looking– Me, if I were hiring a writer or someone on the content side of things, interest and passion about writing, interest about the business and general intelligence is more valuable to me than like “Okay, did you study this for four years in school?” When it comes to things like writing, that is very much what you’re learning and what you’re doing in the classroom. When it comes to content writing, it isn’t going to trump what you do outside on your own. To get good at writing, you need to practice it a lot on your own.

Shawn: Two podcast ago, John Sutler from [unintelligible 00:04:16] was on here saying he looks for three traits when he’s hiring somebody: humble, hungry and smart. Do you need a degree for that?

Kaite: No.

Shawn: Does having a degree make you a better writer?

Kaite: No, I don’t think so.

Bill: Although wouldn’t you think that writing and school where you have somebody to review your writing and help you fine tune it versus just writing.

Kaite: I feel like you would get that on a job too though. We’re constantly reviewing each other’s stuff, and you’re getting that or if you work with a good– My first job out of school I probably learned in my first three months there- I had a extremely tough editor -more about that type of writing than I did in school especially because– Unless you’re like in my case like creative writing classes, you’re learning academic-style writing. I’m getting off on a tangent in a whole other topic here but that’s not something– If someone’s a great research writer, I don’t necessarily value that in the marketing role.

Shawn: What’s your take, Bill?

Bill: I think that there is a lot of value to college and college education. I think if you talk to people post-college about their work experience, they do get a lot of value out of what they did in school, but I have noticed and this goes way back, all the way back to my era, is that a lot of what professional people cite as things that they learned and valued from college is not from the classroom.

Kaite: Yes.

Shawn: Correct.

Bill: Oddly enough and I think that this may be a little misleading, when there are things from the classroom, it’s usually things that were outside your major. Your major is the thing that you are passionate about, you learn about and you can do. You could probably if you’re hungry- to use John Sutler’s word -you can do that on your own, or if you’re Kaite, you can write a lot on your own. What you learn in other classes that can be applicable or helpful is the things you remember because the other stuff is just almost internal or intrinsic to you. There’s also the whole issue which college is not necessarily the thing for this or requirement for this is the whole issue of maturity-

Kaite: That’s what I was-

Bill: –dealing with people.

Kaite: -going to say too, the leadership skills– At least I look back on my– I was involved in a lot of extra-curriculars, and I feel like I got a ton of leadership and that type of experience or interest through that. The social skills you learn in college and just being self-driven, your mom’s not getting you out of bed to go– You go to class. Those types of things I think there’s a lot of value in that and just like you said maturity. You grow up in college a little bit more.

Bill: And learn how to deal with people, drama, and problems and get people to do things that they don’t want to do.

Kaite: Time management.

Shawn: We say that because that’s our frame of reference today, and that’s where you spend formative years of your adolescence. What I wonder is and I 100% agree, there’s a ton of value in all of that. I agree with you Bill that some of my favorite classes or memories from college were things that were absolutely unrelated to my day to day, if you will.

I think what’s really interesting is as the cost for college continues to skyrocket way more so than the cost of everything else as the cost of anything else rises, are we coming to a society where only people who are bestowed with the ability to afford this or going into a ton of debt, are they the only ones we’re going to have in our labor pool as far as we look at the job descriptions right now? Are we shutting out a bunch of potential people that are really talented but might not have the same lot in life?

Bill: I think that is a risk. I think that a lot of schools are seeing the student pool, the population be wealthier like more established and-

Shawn: More homogeneous.

Bill: -more homogeneous.

Kaite: Also think from that perspective, those kids are also not necessarily the smartest, the brightness, the best always. Yes, they might be but they are– To Shawn’s point, they’ve got that upper hand. They might have somebody who is college educated guide them on like, “Here’s where you should look at. Here’s how do you approach just the general admissions process”. You’re probably not a first-generation college student. You can afford the debt, or your parents are paying for it.

Bill: You have coaches. You have essay writers. You have-[crosstalk]

Kaite: The schools that you can apply to in and of itself at that lot in life is completely different than someone who might be a first-generation college student or the child of an immigrant who’s also a first-generation college student, whatever.

Bill: You have the means to be on a traveling sports team or some other high time, high dollar, extra-curricular that makes you stand out. I’ve also heard– This is fairly recent. There’s been a big push back against that, at least a lot of colleges where they’re very aware of not catering admissions to the people that have perfectly well-manufactured applications.

Kaite: I’d argue that–

Shawn: You’re saying dropping the SAT scores is required?

Bill: Dropping the SAT scores, you see a conscious attempt to bring in first generation college.

Kaite: I’d still argue that some of those people maybe it’s not your parents but someone along– I don’t know. I haven’t applied to college in a million years, but I imagine that somebody is there coaching them. Maybe it’s a teacher who sees a lot of potential. I still feel like in some way they must have some sort of upper hand. The admissions process in and of itself is [unintelligible 00:10:24] straightforward especially if you’re 17 years old.

Shawn: There’s probably two key things that we’re talking about here. One is access to mentorship in whatever form that comes in, whether that’s a teacher or a parent, a relative, whatever. Again, that selective bias unless there’s over effort to go after people that don’t have that mentorship. Then secondly, I think we’re shunning a lot of the workforce because of the selection bias.

Right now, we’re talking about this. We interviewed a bunch of potential interns today. Every single one of them was in a college program.

Bill: Correct.

Shawn: Wouldn’t be interesting potentially if we’re saying that maybe this is overvalued if we started to look at people that weren’t, were either seniors in high school or just graduated or were trying to figure out where to go in life. Maybe we’re willing to give them a shot.

Kaite: You know what else would have been interesting? You said that you asked every intern candidate why they chose their school. I think you said that.

Shawn: Not everyone but it was a question a bunch of them.

Kaite: A good amount of them. Why did you choose to go to school in the first place? I know so many people. Maybe it’s different with this current generation, but I know so many people in my generation who went to school because that’s what you do and then don’t use their degrees at all. Not even remotely use them.

Shawn: Yes. To be a 100% clear in this, the reason I’m bringing this up as a topic there’s a ton of value in school, no doubt. There’s a ton of value in school, but what I worry about is just I have two young kids. I look at the way those costs are rising, and I’m wondering at what point is there an inflection point where it’s no longer worth–

Kaite: I was going to ask you if you’re going to encourage them to go.

Shawn: -either the investment or the debt that you have to take on. That’s why you see so much pressure I think now in a lot of communities- to your point Bill -you have to do well on your SATs. You have to do these traveling supports teams because that’s my chance in scholarship. That’s unneeded pressure too, and there’s enough growing up as it is.

Bill: Right. You’re starting to see more companies saying college degrees are not required, but I think what were getting at a second ago is all of us– It’s a broad brush comment. Many of us in the professional world, many HR people, it’s almost like it’s pre-printed on the job description bachelor degree required or master degree required.

Shawn: MBA preferred.

Bill: Is it required? Is it necessary to do the job, or is that just a requirement that you’re putting on because-

Kaite: Because that’s what you do.

Bill: -everyone has done that traditionally? I think you get some big players out there Google, Facebook, Ernst & Young-

Shawn: GE.

Bill: -GE, IBM saying that college degrees are not always required. Clearly, they are going to be required for some jobs but not for others. I’m picking those companies because they are posting and hiring for jobs that most other companies, many other companies say college degree is required for, and they’re saying it’s not required.

Shawn: They can spark that sea change.

Bill: Right. In fairness to everyone else listening, those organizations are big enough and confident and comfortable enough that they can afford to do the apprenticeship and training.

Kaite: If you’re hiring someone straight out of high school, even just from the maturity standpoint you’re going to be doing a whole lot more hand holding than you might with a– Even though you’re going to be a lot of hand holding with someone straight out of college, it’s going to be even more so. You’re going to have to invest a lot of time in that individual, so they better be worth it.

Shawn: You need a legit apprenticeship structure, and you need to realize that they’re going through their formative years just like you may in college while they’re at your company. They’re going to screw up, but how do you adjust for that and make sure that it’s a learning environment?

Kaite: Set them up with mentors.

Shawn: Yes, you need to be a thoughtful organization that can help them advance their career and help them find their interest.

Kaite: If you do it and you do it successfully, then it’s such a way to stand out.

Shawn: I’d think so. If you could make that work over the long term?

Kaite: Yes.

Bill: If you think about some of the big name companies, the highly respected ones, big consulting firms, big financial services firms, big professional services firms, the first thing they do when they hire a new class– Mostly they are college graduates, but when they hire them they go into training. You come in, and you learn to do this the Morgan Stanley way.

Shawn: GE has the GE MBA.

Bill: Right. GE goes even further. They have a long term training program.

Shawn: Rotational programs for a couple of years I think.

Bill: Right. Exactly. The other ones they train you how to do things their way and they don’t–

Kaite: Think of the benefit to the company if you’re doing that. If we hired people straight out of high school, we’re literally molding them to exactly the BDR we want. I’m just picking that role out of a hat.

Bill: Right. It’s also you have to pay for that. You pay for it both in the difficulty of training them and getting them up to speed but also the literal cost of having a program where you have people that are not contributing for longer because you’re training them how to do things.

Kaite: I wonder what the long term ROI is. Because you’ve molded them and you’ve given them a leg up, are they more likely to be loyal to the company for longer than they otherwise might be?

Shawn: Or even if you can require them to be. I’ve heard of that too. We’re going to invest in you for training for a couple of years, but you got to stay here four years afterwards and all that.

Kaite: Yes, I’ve heard of that. I’ve heard of that.

Shawn: Might not be ideal but it is one of the ways to overcome the structural inefficiencies that we’re talking about.

Kaite: It’s an interesting thought.

Bill: It’s a challenge for changing the mindset, and getting started in a program like that is difficult. I think what you’ll see is– You’re already seeing some colleges are having a hard time because they can’t justify- one of you two said this -they can’t justify charging $50,000, $60,000 a year and then sending people out into the workforce where they have a degree that’s not helping them earn enough money to make that worthwhile.

Shawn: They’re making 30, and they have a massive amount of debt.

Bill: Right. You never pay that back.

Shawn: There’s been a ton of stories too recently that we’re going on a tangent here, but I remember reading one last weekend where the person in the story was delaying life decisions. Specifically here it was that his wife was not ready for a child because of the amount of student debt they had, and they were in their late 30s. He was feeling the need to have a child and big life decisions like that, like home ownership, kids.

Kaite: I feel like that’s all you hear about. My generation is like, “You’re still living at–” I don’t know if people are still living at home with their parents, but some are. Like, “You’re still living at home with your parents”, or you’re living there for an extended amount of time. It’s like, “Yes, when you have 200 grand in student debt, how can you afford a $3000 apartment in Boston?” You just can’t.

Shawn: To your point Bill, at what point is that not worth it?

Kaite: If you have a degree in poetry because someone told you you have to go to college and you’re working as a sales rep.

Shawn: What was the value of the degree?

Kaite: Exactly, yes.

Bill: I think the other side of this is you’re going to start seeing some forward thinking line managers sitting there saying, “I don’t really care if the person has a degree”. This guy is smart, or this woman has a great personality for sales or is a great writer.

Kaite: Super creative and would be a great designer, yes.

Bill: Like, “I’ve been reading her blog for years. I don’t care whether or not she has a degree”. You get the renegade maverick where an individual manager will make a pitch to hire an individual person who doesn’t have a degree and then people go, “Wow, that worked”.

Kaite: We do. When you put together a job description, Shawn, you don’t put– I don’t either. I didn’t put a college degree most recently on it. That said, I don’t think a single without a college degree applied.

Shawn: Yes, I typically don’t because it’s more about the relevant experience, but again, what we’re talking about here is how do you get that relative experience then if– This is the challenge. You really have to have programs in place.

Kaite: Because even if you’re in a blue collar field that’s where you’re getting those apprenticeships or something similar.

Shawn: Correct.

Bill: I guess that raises another question which is a challenge for HR and anyone else in management is how do you make it culturally acceptable in an environment where most of your employees have college degrees to not have a bias or not treat somebody without a college degree differently. They shouldn’t. You shouldn’t.

Kaite: People will.

Shawn: Guys, it seem to me is any other bias there are. There’s always the bias in hiring which is, “I’m cool. I like people like me. That person is like me. They must be cool too. I’m going to hire him”. This is how this happens. It’s the same thing there. It’s looking outside your world and realizing there’s other possibilities.

Bill: Is that why your team is so cool?

Shawn: That’s why my team is awesome because they’re all exactly like me. All right. Hopefully, this was a little educational day. We just thought these were interesting topics that deserved a little bit more discussion. We want to know your take on them. We always post this on LinkedIn. Let us know your comments there. Tweet at us. Leave some comments on our podcast on Apple, iTunes subscription, on Google Play. Let us know what you think.

Kaite: We also have six boxes of swag for Comp + Coffee podcast listeners. We are giving them out to anybody who comments on iTunes, so leave us a comment. Tell us your thoughts. Make it yourself somehow identifiable whether it’s your first and last name or something, your email so we can reach out to you and mail you your swag. The first six people to respond will get some.

Shawn: Or email and let us know you did it. It’s

Kaite: Great.

Shawn: All right everybody. Thanks for your time today. We’ll catch you next week.

Bill: Thanks.


[00:21:16] [END OF AUDIO]