Not Everybody Needs (Or Should Earn) a College Degree

It is time to stop pushing every kid to get a college degree?

Every now and then, I see an article that resonates strongly, or that clearly enunciates ideas I've had before, but never got around to writing up. So it was with an editorial from the Feb. 3-9 issue of British news magazine The Economist. On page 13 in that issue, you'll find a brief story entitled "Time to end the academic arms race."


The subtitle for this story — namely "School-leavers need other ways to learn and train besides going to university" — underscores its fundamental premise, which is that not every person is cut out for a college degree, or able to successfully meet the requirements to earn such a credential. I couldn't agree more.


And for many people, myself included, attending college (and even graduate school) was a key and important lifetime experience. But, as you'd expect, The Economist offers an interesting economic argument to explain why "college for everybody" may not be the best approach to acquiring the skills, knowledge and experience for many current and prospective members of the global workforce.


The article puts it this way: "Governments are keen on higher education, seeing it as a means to boost social mobility and economic growth." It goes on to observe that education subsidies in the United States alone come out to roughly $200 billion a year, before opining that governments "tend to overestimate the benefits and ignore the costs of expanding university education," with the end result being that "public money just feeds the arms race for qualifications."


Let me say again: I agree with this 110 percent.


The real crux of the analysis here is the observation that the proliferation of degrees has meant that many recruiters are using them as "a crude way to screen applicants," often requiring degrees for positions that have never required them before. Yet these jobs don't really demand university-educated workers.


Degree-fixated recruiters exclude otherwise highly qualified candidates from consideration for jobs they could do with ease and dispatch. This is unfair to candidates who may recognize that a university education isn't their cup of tea, but who nevertheless need gainful and meaningful employment to participate fully, fairly, and freely in what 21st century society has to offer.


Even more telling is the discussion of what happens to what the article calls "the weakest students," many of whom now pursue college education as a matter of course. These students are drawn into college or university, but are also the most likely to drop out. They must nevertheless pay for this dubious privilege, and often end up incurring heavy student loan debts.


They have to bear the debt load without necessarily realizing the kinds of income gains and career boosts they would have accrued if they had stuck things out and finished their degrees (or so prevailing theory goes). In fact, the article asserts that, "When dropouts are included, the expected financial return to starting a degree for the weakest students dwindles to almost nothing" (emphasis mine).


Office convo with young professionals

What's the answer to this conundrum? Other forms of training, of course. The article states that, "School-leavers should be given a wider variety of ways to gain vocational skills and to demonstrate their employability in the private sector." It goes on to observe that, " �Micro-credentials' — short, work-focused courses approved by big employers in fast-growing fields, such as IT — show promise."


If you're not thinking IT certification in this context, you should be, and employers should be, as well. Interestingly, the article goes on to recommend that colleges and universities should grant credits to dropouts for work completed, and that "they should open their exams to anyone who wants to take them, and award degrees to those who succeed."


I can't help but see the growing and increasingly pervasive influence of the "MOOC" model (Massively Open Online Courses) across the whole spectrum of higher education at work here.


Ultimately, this kind of approach would offer more (and for some people) better ways to develop skills, boost productivity, and save public money. The story's conclusion is worth repeating, and pondering carefully: "Young people, both rich and poor, are ill-served by the arms race in academic qualifications, in which each must study longer because that is what all the rest are doing. It is time to disarm."


One more time: I agree. I also believe that by creating shorter, more focused, and more job-relevant training and certification, our society can prepare more people (both younger and older, college-educated or not) to occupy useful and meaningful jobs, and earn a living wage in the process.


We can help address the student debt crisis, and provide a better return on our social investments in education. Let's do this thing!


Would you like more insight into the history of hacking? Check out Calvin's other articles about historical hackery:
About the Author

Ed Tittel is a 30-plus-year computer industry veteran who's worked as a software developer, technical marketer, consultant, author, and researcher. Author of many books and articles, Ed also writes on certification topics for Tech Target, ComputerWorld and Win10.Guru. Check out his website at, where he also blogs daily on Windows 10 and 11 topics.