It is an exciting time on campus at my institution, Middle Tennessee State University. More than 2,500 students will graduate in three ceremonies today and tomorrow. It is a joyful time for graduates and their families. It is a significant accomplishment for students who persevered through exams, presentations, and assignments with a dysfunctional group. Congratulations! Now here is something else to know: Your degree does not hold much value.
The headline seems heretical coming from someone who earns a living in higher education. How can I say a college degree does not mean much? It certainly costs a lot in sweat equity and of course, money. A former boss introduced me to this idea about the value of a degree during a job interview. I was dismayed and disgusted at the time, but later I understood.
What Does It Mean?
It was during my first meeting with my future boss that he proclaimed “your degree doesn’t mean much to me.” I was taken aback. As a first generation college graduate, I was proud to have a bachelor’s degree on my résumé. How dare this man disparage my education!
The boss followed his statement about my degree with an explanation. He said “To me, it shows you are trainable. We will train you in our systems and ways of doing things.” I was still miffed by his statement about the value of my degree, but I understood his point. That encounter occurred 27 years ago. It is still the most salient exchange in a job interview I have ever had.
The belief that a college degree does not mean much is a viewpoint to which I have come around. The issue is that many graduates see their degree as being akin to a golden ticket. They feel entitled to a certain salary or position because they earned a college degree. In that regard, a college degree does not mean much. It is not a “fast pass” to the front of a line… although not having a degree can exclude you from the line.
There is Value
Before you begin questioning me, or worse, the value of having a college degree, let me state that it is definitely worth the time and investment to earn. On one hand, there is tangible evidence of the benefits of a college degree as measured in dollars. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, median lifetime earnings for persons with a bachelor’s degree is almost $2.3 million compared to $1.3 million for persons whose highest education level is a high school diploma. Obtaining a college degree opens doors by equipping graduates with necessary skills. At the same time, a degree serves a gatekeeping function to exclude persons without a college education.
The most valuable aspect of a college degree is not the deliverable (the diploma). The most valuable aspect of earning a college degree is the transformative process students go through to complete their academic program. In the book Me: How to Sell Who You Are, What You Do, and Why You Matter to the World, Colby Jubenville and I discuss the role soft skills play in shaping your personal brand. The tendency might be to associate a college education with learning hard skills (e.g., computer programming languages or generally accepted accounting principles). Hard skills are taught, but what many employers long for are employees with solid soft skills. What are some soft skills? They are intangible abilities such as:
- communication (oral and written)
You can take college courses pertaining to many soft skills like communication and leadership. More importantly, students have opportunities to develop soft skills in the classroom, in extracurricular activities, and in their social lives.
You need not choose between focusing on developing hard skills or soft skills because you need both to shape the makeup of your personal brand (one of the three Ms of a personal brand along with meaning and message). Think of hard skills and soft skills as complementary pieces for your brand. Consider these statistics as reasons to pay attention to developing hard skills and soft skills:
- Hard skills get you in the door—69% of human resources professionals say that they look first at an applicant’s hard skills to determine if they are viable candidates.
- Soft skills get you the job—56% of human resources professionals say the most important abilities in new hires are soft skills, especially interpersonal relations.
Leverage Your Value
My former boss was wrong—a college degree does mean a lot. However, it is up to you to unlock the value. The degree itself is a commodity, with many variations of the product issued by higher education institutions across the country. It is up to you to differentiate our brand with a mix of meaning, makeup, and message unique to your identity. Leverage the benefits of earning a college degree to add value to your brand and stand out from millions of other people that have the same credential.