Should It Matter if a Candidate Doesn’t Have a College Degree?

Should it matter if the candidate doesn’t have a college degree? Yes. And No. The reality is, there is no right or wrong answer.

“It all depends on the real requirements of the job,” says Twin Cities human resources consultant Arlene Vernon. “There are some positions where a college degree is vital and may even be legally required. Certainly professional positions such as a CPA are going to require a related degree. But there are other positions where someone’s hands-on experience can be just as good. It all depends.”

And that is why there is no right or wrong answer.

There are skills and traits that a college education is supposed to provide that has the potential of expediting skills required on the job, says Vernon. The one that comes to mind first is writing skills.

“After being critiqued repeatedly through college on writing succinctly and effectively, a college grad may have a leg up on someone who’s not had that practice and/or training,” says Vernon. “But that’s an assumption. There are probably some horrible writers who have college degrees. The same could be said for math skills, communication skills and other job related skills that could be enhanced through the college experience – or not.”

Here are a couple different case studies:

Kathy is a 37-year-old health care industry manager. She started working in an operating room of a small rural hospital at the age of 18 as a scheduler. She became such an asset to the team – the person who knew everything – the one doctors, nurses and administrative staff couldn’t do without – and got promoted to clinic manager, leading the scheduling and front desk staff. But five years later, she moved 50 miles north, had a baby, and years later when she went back to work, she only worked part-time in scheduling at a branch of a large metro hospital. By now she had 15 years of experience, including previous leadership experience. But when she applied for management positions, they turned her down, hiring recent college graduates simply because they had a degree and she didn’t. So in this case, the clinic valued the degree over experience.

There was Adam, a telecommunications professional who had some college experience but he never finished a degree. He has since gone onto a successful sales career making over $120,000. There was Anthony, also a college dropout, who was promoted to VP of business development at a large company simply because he had such great communication and leadership skills, his personality was what sold him – and others. There are cases of success in every business where key movers and shakers don’t have college degrees. But there are also leadership positions filled by those with MBAs, Ivy-league educations and advanced or multiple degrees in and out of their industry.

What is right? It does vary greatly pending on the job, industry and company.

“If the job requirements ties to specific learning experiences, then the college degree may be pivotal,” says Vernon. “If I’m looking for an entry-level financial analyst, a recent MBA grad with a focus in finance may possess a knowledge base that isn’t easily acquired elsewhere. However, a more seasoned individual who was given the opportunity to move up in a financial organization may have developed some of the same knowledge and aptitude. However, the latter might be harder to find.”

What do you do as an HR professional, recruiter or small business manager? Start by assessing each position to determine what education vs. experience level is truly required, and what would be nice to have, says Vernon. Perhaps you would like to hire someone with an MBA, but would hire someone with a bachelor’s degree and related experience. Or perhaps you just want someone with industry experience and the right technical skills – regardless if they have a degree or not. Some companies do this and some do not, points out Vernon, adding, employment ads and hiring criteria cannot be discriminatory, which means they must accurately reflect the organization’s and the position’s needs. So some may say that by requiring a college degree when it’s not necessary might lead to discrimination. More frequently you’ll see an ad that states something like: “College and degree and 2+ years of related experience or equivalent required.”

The ‘equivalent’ is the company’s protection to allow for qualified candidates who may not have a degree, says Vernon.

Employers typically look at the whole package a candidate brings to a job.

“If I’m screening resumes for a client’s job opening, I look at experience before I look at degrees,” says Vernon. “It’s a more accurate way of assessing what skills the candidate brings to the position. Once I see that they’ve done the same/similar work that I’m seeking, then I’ll look deeper at related education. It all comes down to the whole package the person brings. If a non-degreed person has done everything I need them to – and by looking at the resume and cover letter and evaluating the interview they possess the knowledge and support skills it takes to do the job – then that’s who I’ll hire. Or vice versa – if the degreed person wins, that’s who is hired.”

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Matt Krumrie is a career columnist and professional resume writer who has been providing helpful information and resources for job seekers and employers for 15+ years. Learn more about Krumrie via resumesbymatt.com, connect with him on LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com/in/mattkrumrie/) and follow him on Twitter via @MattKrumrie.

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