No College, No Value? Think Again
She plans on a career in public health, and I couldn't be prouder of her. And yet if she'd come to me one day and said she wanted to pursue an alternative path, something outside the confines of a leafy campus, I would have been just as proud. I know that people can nourish mind and soul through experiences that don't yield a degree. I know you can find professional success without a degree on your resume. I know that the "school of life" can provide a unique perspective, and I know that such perspectives can contribute to a diversity of thought in companies.
I know because I never attended college.
Not many however would agree with me. When I first moved to the United States in the 1990s, the economy was booming and I'd already had several years' experience running a PR firm under my belt. But finding a job in the US proved challenging. More than a dozen companies rejected me at first blush, unable to look past my college degree-less application.
Luckily, State Street was more broad-minded.
Employers should consider that a lack of a degree isn't an automatic indicator of laziness or intellectual inferiority. While there are many worthwhile reasons to go to college, there are equally valid reasons not to – not the least of which is the cost of of an education and the enormous amount of debt facing many students and graduates. Barely half of student loan borrowers think the benefits of their bachelor’s degrees outweigh the costs of pursuing those degrees, according to the Pew Research Center1. A young person confronting the steep price tag of a college education today may decide that she’d rather save her money and find other options for self-improvement and success, such as volunteer projects, military service, inexpensive training programs, or practical job experience which entails just starting from the bottom and working her way to the top. Employers considering such candidates may meet voracious learners, energetic self-starters, or those with exceptional talents or skills. They need only look at news headlines for examples: Some of the world's most famous business leaders, from Richard Branson to Mark Zuckerberg, either never attended college or dropped out.
Employers must accept that a lack of a degree isn't an automatic indicator of laziness or intellectual inferiority.
I’ll admit that, in my case, skipping college wasn’t a conscious strategy. After some extreme family upheaval, I had to step in and be in charge. College simply wasn’t on the table. But learning still was. I split my time between earning a living as a waitress and camping out at my local library in the north of England, devouring books on everything from biology to philosophy. I designed my own curriculum, as it were, sating my intellectual curiosity with the subjects that interested me most, while also making sure to broaden my horizons as much as I could bear it. At the restaurant, meanwhile, I honed the skill that I’d long known would play a major role in my future: communication. My ability to connect with a customer invariably brought rewards – both for me and the restaurant.
I took both my practical experience and my self-designed academic experience with me when I began applying for jobs at communications firms, eventually landing a position answering phones with a small design and public relations firm in the northwest of England. From there, I advanced to account management roles and then worked my way up to run my own Public Relations firm in London. When I arrived in the US, those initial snubs from college-minded employers hurt, but I did manage to find a fulfilling role at a small company. From there I moved on to State Street, where managers frankly cared more about my capabilities and what I could contribute to the firm.
These days, State Street is even more proactive about making those without traditional educations feel welcome. For the last 15 years, we've partnered with Year Up, an initiative targeting low-income young adults who haven't attended college. It provides the six months of technical and professional skills training and then assigns them internships at major corporations, including State Street. Since our alliance began, we've hired more than 500 of our Year Up interns to full-time positions. We're also active in seeking out applicants from community colleges and are in ongoing discussions about how to best bring recent military veterans into the fold.
Fortunately, we're not the only financial services firm opening our doors to graduates of the school of life. In the US, nearly 3.8 million jobs in finance, real estate, professional and management services don't require a bachelor's degree, according to research2 by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Of course, I want to be careful about painting an overly rosy picture. Despite the various options available for non-grads, the center predicts3 that, in the near future, employers will increasingly list requirements for bachelor's degrees (or at least associate's degrees) in their job postings.
I hope my story and those of other successful degree-less leaders will inspire companies to curb this trend. Corporations need to take a hard look at their entry level positions and have honest conversations about whether college degrees are truly necessary for those roles. They should recognize the efficacy of alternative educational programs, from online courses to coding academies to military training, and also consider offering their own on-the-job training, thus opening up new pools of talent. They must appreciate the unique perspectives provided by people who choose paths outside of college and understand how they can enrich an organization. Graduates of the school of life can be every bit as valuable to companies as their college-educated counterparts. They just need to be given a chance, like the one State Street gave me all those years ago.
1. Pew Research Center analysis of Federal Reserve Board's 2016 Survey of Household Economics and Decisionmaking.
2. Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, Good Jobs That Pay without a BA: A State-by-State Analysis, 2017.
3. Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, Recovery: Job Growth and Education Requirements Through 2020.
Hannah Grove is our chief marketing officer. She focuses on using technology to help us approach the market in new and different ways. Hannah is currently listening to the Reveal Podcasts and Damien Rice.