Should you pursue college or develop a skill?

in Culture, General

Do Degrees Still Matter In The Skill-Oriented World?

Do degrees still matter in the skill-oriented world?

With the increased emphasis on skill development, do college degrees even matter?

Before: You explore the world freely and inculcate relevant skills.

Then: You choose a subject that interests you for your college major and fumble around with other subjects until completing your degree.

Now: You choose a major that offers the best employability prospects (with a little consideration for your interests).

That’s how education and choosing college majors has evolved with time – you’ll find out how exactly the transformation has occurred later.

But with the increased emphasis on skill development, do college degrees even matter?

I have explored the subject with a lot of graphs and data in this article. You’ll also find a few gifs and a video attempting to cajole you. If you stay around until the end and comment on the article, then I’ll consider that you’re intelligent as fuck. Else:


No sssshhh…I am not judging you. Get on, let’s start by looking at the reasons that college degrees matter.

Why colleges degrees matter: 3 important life aspects (and what colleges were supposed to do until 1970s?)

“You’ve got to do it.”

That’s the response you hear when you question going to college.

Sure, a college degree is a well-structured approach to learn theoretical knowledge and initially it was a privilege to get one. In 1937, merely 15% of the 18 to 20 year olds attended college (majorly from wealthier classes).

The scenario has completely changed now with individuals ready to shell out tens of thousands of dollars (and drown in bank loans) for getting a degree.


Anyway, here are the 3 aspects of your life that a degree is supposed to help with:

1. Getting a head start for launching a successful career

Until high school (when you aren’t capable of determining your interests) you can explore your curiosities. Then one day, you’re supposed to choose a major. Your parents and educational counsellors will show you a range of lucrative subjects to trigger your brain cells.

But you’re completely freaked out. Because you feel that your professional life curve hinges on the subject you choose to study at college.

Time for a reality check:

  • Your professional life isn’t necessarily a linear path with a series of checkpoints that mark your achievements based on years of experience. It can have a series of bumps and complete makeovers. For example, James Altucher has had multiple successful careers. He even had to start from zero every time he entered a new career field.
  • Most job applications require the candidates to be a graduate. A 2010 research conducted by New York Fed found that 62% of graduates work jobs that require a degree. But only 27% graduates work a job that relates to their major.​

2. Fulfill the eligibility criteria to apply for jobs

For specialized jobs in finance, engineering and architecture degrees remain a prerequisite. The academic knowledge and labs in colleges are probably essential for a student before he tackles real-world problems. Else, maybe, the industry professionals continue to think anciently and are unwilling to change. 

Outside of these few technical professions, degrees aren’t a prerequisite to get jobs. Writing, marketing, business development, software and many other professions don’t require formal degree shit. Your skills and past experience are given weightage.


Companies like Ernst & Young and Penguin Random House have announced that they won’t require prospective job candidates to have university degrees. New age startups also prefer skilled college dropouts over greenhorns with college degrees.

But most corporate companies continue to use degrees as a compliance credential. They want you to get done with it; doesn’t matter what you do.

Explore this reddit thread to find people pursuing all sorts of jobs that are unrelated to their majors.

There’s a guy with a degree in psychology, but does snake breeding. Can it get weirder than that?

3. Become employable

Let’s face it:

Getting a decent paying job is the main reason most of us pursue education today.

A degree from an elite college is a ticket to a secure life. Economist Sandy Baum feels that unless you go off into too much of debt, a college degree is helpful. People with a higher education level tend to earn more.

So does simply passing by your courses at university make you employable? What exactly are employers looking for in job seekers?

Over traditional resumes boasting your 4-year degree, employers prefer to see real-life applications. They want to see if you can solve critical problems in a team environment.

So you need to pursue activities beyond the classroom like internships, projects and leadership roles that impart transferable practical skills.

Unfortunately, most students continue to “tell and not show.” Employers rate fresh graduates poorly than they themselves judged for nearly 20 skills.

The huge mismatch points to a paradox –

Although people with college degrees have higher lifetime earnings, but when you get immediately out of college you won’t have relevant job skills.

How about we step back and question:

Were colleges traditionally supposed to become job centers and inculcate relevant industry skills?

Let’s look at the Standford University Founding Grant principles. They say that their “studies and exercises are directed to the cultivation and enlargement of the mind.” Stanford also wants to “qualify its students for personal success, and direct usefulness in life.” They don’t mention job security.

Traditionally, colleges were seen as centres for exploration and encouraging “intellectual curiosities.” Students pursued different courses and majors to develop a range of skills and knowledge. This idea of liberal education didn’t include a direct ticket to a career/job. It was about gaining perspective and knowledge that would help in the lifetime.

Senior reporter at the Chronicle Dan Berrett thinks that it was on February 28, 1967 that the purpose of going to college changed.

It was the day when governor of California Ronald Reagan said that “there are certain intellectual luxuries that perhaps we could do without” And taxpayers shouldn’t be “subsidizing intellectual curiosity.” He made this announcement during the state budget crisis.

In the coming years, events like the 1973 oil crisis among others changed students and hence, college’s’ priorities. By 1980s, most freshmen had shifted to choosing a college for getting a job.

Choosing practical degrees were on the rise. From about 8% of students saying that they studied “business and commerce” in 1930s, business slowly became the most popular degree. Here’s a chart that shows how “being very well off financially” has risen to become an important goal…

Over “developing a meaningful philosophy of life.”

Ever since prospective students have stopped believing in “intellectual curiosity”, the education boom has led to change in college agendas as well.

Especially the newly opened universities now toss the phrase “we make students industry-ready” in their marketing material. Now colleges can be said to consider students as their “customers.”

With the huge tuition bills that the students are asked to pay, the average education debt for students and parents has increased tremendously – an average class of 2015 graduate will pay back a little over $35k.

I guess it’s justified for us to think from a ‘return’ perspective?

With that in mind, let’s briefly look at what kind of skills are necessary in the 21st century.

How about a quick dance break before we move on?


21st century skills and the need for a new form of learning….

In 1991, in the US, the money spent on information and communication technologies exceeded that on industrial age goods by $5 billion. This was the first time in history that computers had taken priority over engines and machines.

Since then, the spending on software, information and the like has continuously risen across the globe.

Today, everyone with an internet connection can now enrol in courses on a wide range of subjects (even for free). Yet, information still matters. Because without knowing basic facts/principles about a field, you’ll have difficulty in making sense of a complex problem at hand.

But accessing and knowing information alone doesn’t put you in a special spot. A simple Google search will provide the facts to every person.


What matters is:

Recalling relevant knowledge during a novel real-world situation and applying it creatively.

So what kinds of skills have taken a backseat?

Rote, routine and tedious task performing (manual or cognitive) that can be automated. Research by Third Way found that post 2001, the non-routine jobs are stagnating. The job growth after the two recessions and recovery has come entirely from non-routine work.

Which mean that spitting out crammed knowledge a night before the exam might get you a good college grade. But such a traditional learning approach doesn’t make you smart to become job-ready for the marketplace.


Here is how Business Process Management analyst Sandy Kemsley describes the change in human work.

Today, you’ve to get along with people and work on your soft skills to become a well-rounded individual. Specialised technical skills will only take you so far in your career. As per the P21 partnership for 21st century skills, the four essential skills required by a student for succeeding in the information age are:

1. Critical Thinking

2. Creativity

3. Communication

4. Collaboration

Rob King, co-author of Inquire breaks down the importance of these 4 skills in the video below.

Since the world is moving away from purely acquiring academic knowledge, the kind of learning required has also changed. For inculcating higher-order thinking, analytical reasoning and problem-solving skills, the instructional approach needs to be modified.

That’s how the new deeper learning framework has surfaced. It’s based on the following 6 core competencies and now experimented with across some schools in the US.

If we look beyond the schools, then it’s obvious that these 21st century skills aren’t inculcated at colleges. And companies train freshers through intensive vocational courses, soft skills workshops and the like.

Does the massive open online course (MOOC) revolution help? Let’s explore in the next section.

Can MOOCs replace a college degree?

Many people argue that massive open online courses and other online education can substitute a degree. There are bloggers like Scott H Young that attempted to complete the four-year computer science MIT degree in an year. But college is much more than simply completing course-work.

So how can technology play a role to improve the process of learning?

It can make learning more interactive. One model that a few education theorists suggest to replace the traditional lecture and homework sessions is the flipped classroom.

In this model, a student will explore the learning material himself online (or outside the class). After the information transmission, the time inside classrooms will be devoted to applied learning – question & answers, discussions, projects and the like.

The approach has both pros and cons. Many schools are exploring the approach including Latin America. I am not delving into the future of education further in this article.

I introduced you to the self-directed education route because:

In today’s dynamically changing world, you need to rapidly adapt and acquire new skills.

There are video course marketplaces like Udemy that contain thousands of courses on a range of practical skills that will help you in your professional life.

But don’t limit yourself to watching video lectures and studying the material – which in itself, has a dismal completion percentage just touching 15%.

It’s important to implement the concepts you learn in real-life as we saw in the 21st century skills section. A MOOC and other online education resources may supplement the subjects that you’re learning full-time, but I don’t see them replace the degrees anytime soon.

Apply ‘the brand mentality’ to your career

What happens when multiple businesses jump on a trend that’s captivating consumers?

The novelty of the product wears off, it becomes more easily available and consumers don’t value it as much.

Why I am telling you this:

1. You should consider your career as a personal brand.


2. Now, since you’re a brand, you need to develop a competitive difference. The percentage of people who have completed 4 years of college has increased from 5% to 32% (approx) from 1940 to 2015.

A college degree is no longer sufficient to prove your worth and it’s not necessary either.

So like businesses get obsessed with building relevance in market and establish trust for their name…you’ve to perform similar personal brand building exercises.

Getting a college degree helps, but the activities you pursue at college matter more. You want to cultivate a unique and esteemed professional image by showing results that you’ve achieved in the past. Simply telling about your interests, passions and certifications won’t suffice.

You already know the traditional wisdom that:

  • you need to network,
  • gather professional accomplishments,
  • gain practical internship/project working experience,
  • create a blog/personal website to share your knowledge.

But all of the above activities must be centered around your brand’s purpose and the value your name promises. Barring a few careers, your resume can drop the college degree if other numbers demonstrate your relevance and credibility.