One of the fun aspects of blogging for me is getting new post ideas from discussions on earlier posts.

A discussion with Cress (still waiting for the reply, BTW) about free college and why we should offer that here, got me thinking about the assumed correlation between a college degree and success, about the amount of years getting that education and the resultant paycheck that is sure to follow.

First, some short background. My wife, a lawyer (now retired like me) has way more education than I do. Not only that but coming from an upper crust well healed family, only the best schools considered. Raised by a single mom, lower middle class, my schools were limited to wherever I could afford to get in. Her chosen occupation was, on its face, considered a clear path to success as measured by wealth accumulated. Mine, not so much. Yet, going into the marriage, both around 30, the assets combined were fairly equal.

Another measure of success is contentment in avocation, job satisfaction. Again, we are both on equal footing here, happy with the contributions we made and the path chosen.

The lesson here is that many roads can lead to success, as many as definitions individually as is how to measure that success.

Leaving out all the vocational skills that make the world go round, the plumbers, the car mechanics, the electricians, the builders, even the bridge toll takers (you seen their union packages lately?), many white-collar workers and tech workers have found success without a college degree;

Recruiting software engineers is a massive headache for both startups and established companies. For a while now, HackerRank has tried to make both applying for these jobs and hiring the right talent a bit easier. Today, the company is taking a major new step in this direction with the launch of HackerRank Jobs, a job search app that connects companies directly with software engineers who are looking for a new job.

No, not everyone is Will Hunting, but many are skilled enough and know what they want to do right out of High School. And many more can get a great head start or get career choices at their local Junior College for a fraction of the cost.

For years we have heard all the debates about whether a degree is necessary, how your local Starbucks counter guy has a B.A. is whatever (and has the student debt to prove it) but can’t find a job. I don’t want to turn this into a “Get off my lawn” post about this generation being spoiled, lazy or naive. If I put 4 years in, studied hard, and accumulated debt in the process, I would probably hold out for that “great” job as well. But do we really need to foster the notion that success and happiness in work can only be obtained with a college degree?

A buddy that I play tennis with and routinely kicks my ass, runs Children’s Hospital in Oakland. Prior to being the head guy he ran the hiring department from doctors all the way down to technicians. Of course he is well-educated but in many conversations over the years he told me that the intangibles will always win the day. Did you show up for your interview on time, how are you dressed, what do you know about the company, what volunteer work have you done, what was your home life like, show me some of your writing, how well do you  speak, how well do you work with others? It is these qualities which separate you from the herd.

I respect anyone who has put in the years for high falutin’ degrees, especially if they paid for it themselves, but that does not make them smarter, more dedicated, more driven, or more able to do the job. Many cogs turn the wheel and each cog can find success if properly applied.

16 comments

  1. Unfortunately, many in the snowflake generation are too scared of life to get out of their dorms or their parents’ basements to go live it.

    You do need a degree for some things-medicine, the law (yes, sometimes you need a competent lawyer) or engineering. What I’d like to see is students having more choice in what they get to study, without being weighed down by extra, added courses.

  2. WVR, your comment gave me a flashback. Once, flying back from Denmark to the states, I sat next to a woman who was a teacher in Finland. Boy, was she interesting. Back then (don’t know if it has changed) Finnish kids were taught 3 languages at an early age; their own, English and Russian. After middle school, each kid is given an assessment test. Depending on their scores, they were placed into vocational programs where the subjects and studies were more focused on the particular skill learned. Since Finland always places like top 5 in world’s smartest kids, they must be doing something right.

  3. Rich, have you ever heard of a guy named svante paabo? If you’re uninitiated I’d like to tell you the little bit of history I know about him. I think you might find it relatable upon you and I discussing something relevant in your life right now.

    Svante is a Swedish geneticist, maybe THE single most important human being of our lifetime. He is credited with mapping the genome of the Neanderthal man, and finding an overlap between the genes of human beings and neandertals. He’s changed science and history as we know it by shedding light on what happened with arcane humans and modern human beings, setting the course and timeline from the “out of Africa” theory.

    You can find a lot of YouTube videos he’s been a part of, lectures across the world explaining his breakthrough discovery. Using the genetic information he gathered and what’s known about neandertal dna he’s been able to trace characteristics and diseases we get as human beings from our Neanderthal ancestors, and he’s even been able to calculate the percentage of neandertal people are with his process.

    The reason I bring him up is because I was really inspired with his life story, and what lead him to his passion for ancient dna. He attributes quite a lot of inspiration to his work, oddly enough on Indiana Jones. He saw the movie as a child after his mother took him to Egypt and really aspired to be an archeologist as a child. It awakened in him a sense of discovery, and got him to think creatively in the field of science.

    He talks about attending university in Uppsala where most Swedes go for advanced studies. Yes, it’s free or almost nothing to attend university in Sweden but I’m not going to harp on that.

    What is like to close the loop on is how his inspiration from creative entertainment helped him apply his genealogy education to solve a mystery in science. Before him, science and archaeology worked almost independent from each other, but he had the concept of taking bone fragments from a neandertal and using the material to map the dna of this ancient being.

    He even talks about how he had to be creative in the process of creating the genome, and really used a process of elimination from known contaminants of the fossils to find the genes he needed to fill in the missing parts of the genome.

    Where do you think he’d be if Steven Spielberg decided that he’d better be a plumber because film didn’t put food on the table? Where would science and the field of genetics be without svante paabo’s contribution to the history books?

    The point I’m trying to make here is I think it’s inportant to keep an open mind on education and what kinds of education are “good.” Sometimes people find what they’re good at while IN school, and sometimes they need to explore in order to find what can be impactful in society.

    China, as a communist country mandates what their citizens will be in the workforce. A friend of mine in school was a Chinese National and he told me a little bit about his father’s experience getting educated there.

    The reds basically came to him and said “we need carpenters” and so he became a carpenter. Three years earlier or later and he’d have been something else. With rapid prototyping and robotics being a major factor in manufacturing now his father has almost no employable skill, and since carpentry want his passion or choice in life, he doesn’t really have the creativity or drive to being something extra to the table in that field.

    That, among other things, are some of the reasons I’m hesitant to dictate to people what’s appropriate to study. In your soecific case, you have someone close to you in college right now. In his current field he’s going to survive on grants and probably not destined for a life of independent wealth.

    If it all comes down to money to both educate and live on in this world, I just read In n Out managers make 150k per year. So, boned a burger flipper is worth more to society than being a geneticist in many cases if your earning power is the yardstick to measure success by.

    AI and automation are going to hit this country fast. AI soecificalky is probably going to render many trades obsolete before robotics is even invested in. I’d be very hesitant of a one size fits all approach to dictating how our futures are determined.

    Education is an investment in the health of our future as a nation, and I think it’s got a pretty good return rate if we look at the advancements we’ve made in the 20th century alone.

  4. Where do you think he’d be if Steven Spielberg decided that he’d better be a plumber because film didn’t put food on the table?

    Thanks for making my case. Spielberg was a college drop out. Yes, he later returned to college for his degree (probably done more for him) but his career and success was cemented by the 7 year contract Universal gave him prior.

    Where would science and the field of genetics be without svante paabo’s contribution to the history books?

    Since no where in my post did I say or intimate that all higher education was worthless and a waste of money, I’m not sure what your point is. Of course careers like the law, medicine and science need advanced degrees. But those are 3 career paths out of many. Scientific advancements, cures for disease, AI (your example), anything that improves the human condition, I’m all for, of course, but would Svante have had the time to come up with all his great discoveries, if he had to mess with his plumbing, recycle his own trash, or build his own house from the ground up? Svante drives to work, a mechanic built his car, he does research on his computer, a low level tech guy assembled his Dell computer, he has to eat to maintain his strength, a burger flipper provides that, and he writes books to notify the world of his discoveries, the book binders provide that service. For every pioneer in his field that made any great discovery or built a better mouse trap, a thousand vocational workers that made his life better helped him along the way. Holly crap, now I sound like Elizabeth Warren.

  5. Unfortunately, a college degree is all but necessary if you want to work and advance in any kind of professional/technical services setting. Especially if you are in a business function like me (as opposed to a technical role like an engineer or analyst), the type of degree really doesn’t matter, so long as it is a bachelor’s (and in some cases for guys with long experience, some type of associate’s degree).

    While the value of a college degree for non-technical or non-specialized positions has certainly degraded, it is still a reasonably strong proxy for basic professional qualification – responsibility, ability to follow rules, communication, etc. It’s not that someone without a degree can’t have these traits, it’s just that it is harder to demonstrate and thus puts an applicant at a disadvantage from the get-go. In a competitive job hunt, that disadvantage can all but rule someone out if there’s not some other “in”.

    Additionally, lack of a degree can be a challenge even when hired and performing well if there is a need to market the individual. In my project-based company, we often compete for projects on the basis of qualifications of our key personnel, and lack of a degree can make our offer less competitive.

    But in my line of work, once you have a bachelor’s degree, experience and skill are much more valuable considerations for internal advancement and recognition. However, I think advancing into senior leadership roles is still greatly aided by some type of advanced degree, typically an MBA. For technical folks, it really depends on what you’re working on and whether the advanced degree will translate into economic value on projects.

  6. I love it when zoom reappears out of nowhere and delivers big like this!

    Right?

    Most of the comments are on point and this is something that I discuss with people somewhat frequently. I have a kid that is ready to make some initial decisions like “what do I want to do?” and “do I need college?” and “what kind of degree?”.

    In the past an AA or AS was a pretty good choice for someone wanting to gain entry into basic office work. I got a job simply because I was pursuing an AS. Now a four year degree has replaced the two year as an entry level degree.

    Thing is, a BA or BS is a LOT of work and money if you don’t need the education or graduate degree. A bachelor’s degree to make coffee drinks is stupid. I understand needing to get your resume to the top of the pile, but a bachelor’s degree should almost be a disqualifier for a job that requires specialty training or OJT. What happened to companies that understood that “overqualified” = “short-timer”= “waste of time”?

    Someone should strive to re-design the associate’s degree as somewhat less of a joke. Average high school kids can graduate with damn near enough credits to get one. The first two years of college are similar to the last two of high school. Requiring a few relevant upper level courses to some associate’s majors could fill a niche rather than having young people going into loads of debt for a four-year grind that will provide nothing practical.

    Zoom, how credible are undergraduate certificates? I think that this may be the “niche” that I am describing.

  7. I love it when zoom reappears out of nowhere and delivers big like this!

    Don’t I get any credit for flushing him out?

    To put my post in perspective. My kid graduated from St. Marys of California this year with a B.A. is Bio-chemistry. This is a private school, and even with the scholarships obtained, the total bill for everything (he lived on campus all four years) was around 200K. He has zero student loans, my gift to him (he will do the same for his kids). And he starts grad school in the fall. So clearly, I am not against going to college. I am against the notion that college degree equals success/high paying job and that everyone needs college or else they will always be at a disadvantage.

  8. So clearly, I am not against going to college.

    I did not get that impression at all.

    I am all for anyone going to college as long as the risk/reward is spelled out to them and they understand that there may not be a return on the investment. Your gift to your son is quite generous. I also will fund my son’s education so that he doesn’t start life with onerous debt should he decide to go to college.

  9. Zoom, how credible are undergraduate certificates?

    I am not really sure, as I haven’t come across too many myself. What I would say is that if the certificate is more directly applicable to the job, I would think that would come across good enough to get you in the call-back pile. Really the key is getting in the door far enough that you can make your case to someone. Of course every job, company, and industry is different.

    Don’t I get any credit for flushing him out?

    Due credit granted. I know I’ve been out of touch for a while….selling and buying a house, having a baby, and generally not feeling getting into the fray, though I have tried to keep up enough so we can keep the lights on aboard this rickety viking ship.

  10. I wasn’t trying to be condescending or rebut your post, Rich. I was just expressing how I view higher education in general. I’m really more in zoom’s camp here that there are a list of intangibles college provides that makes me believe it’s still a more superior solution to graduating high school and pissing into the wind about your future.

    I’ve found in my field there are artists that are just born with talent but they’re idiot savants in the workplace, they don’t have the skills or polish schooling provides to enter the corporate world. John Lassetter, as an example was fired from Disney after taking an executive to view his experimental computer animated film he worked on as an animator in the 80s. You’d say he had the last laugh but as I’m sure you know by reading the news he fell victim to the precise lack of polish I’m talking about.

    On the other hand when we’ve groomed managers for the creative field in other fields, the ones who excel are not the natural talents. They’re usually mediocre artists, but people who have been educated and understand things like delegation, time management, aligning creative needs to business goals, and public speaking in a corporate environment (where saying the wrong thing can get your ass fired).

    Sometimes I’d see someone truly driven, but just not in possession of a college degree. It would become evident in things like emails with poor grammar, lack of ability to self start, being able to be self motivated…. All things I’d almost never encounter with employees that came from higher education. I’d also often encounter new hires through word of mouth from other employees, meaning the network schools created was also a factor in who we’d employ.

  11. hey’re usually mediocre artists, but people who have been educated and understand things like delegation, time management, aligning creative needs to business goals, and public speaking in a corporate environment (where saying the wrong thing can get your ass fired).

    I guess it really depends on the field you’re in. I work in a heavily quantitative field. In my group of 14 people, 12 are from China (and the only other “non” Asian besides me is from Iran). All of them are very book smart, have some sort of advanced math degree (in some cases several) but almost all have just above zero soft skills. My case is essentially opposite to yours. Usually the more degrees you have, the less soft skills you have. When I hire, I like to look past the degrees, and make sure that I can carry on a conversation with you. These guys are all smarter than me, and I need them to explain things in non-quantitative ways. I need the diamonds in the rough that are not too smart, if that makes sense.

  12. Apologies Rich – I’ve been travelling the past few days so haven’t had a chance to check in.

    A discussion with Cress (still waiting for the reply, BTW) about free college and why we should offer that here, got me thinking about the assumed correlation between a college degree and success, about the amount of years getting that education and the resultant paycheck that is sure to follow.

    I certainly don’t think that University is for everyone, and always leads to success. My point was more that making education accessible for everyone has a huge benefit for a society. For some that might be studying Law, for some that might be learning programming, for some that might be learning to cook. But cutting off some potential paths to kids because they can’t afford it, means wasted potential. $200k makes my eyes water! You’re a very generous father!

  13. Apologies Rich – I’ve been travelling the past few days so haven’t had a chance to check in.

    Yeah, you and stogy, gallivanting all over the world making humanity safe, probably have matching decoder rings.

    But cutting off some potential paths to kids because they can’t afford it, means wasted potential

    That’s why I brought up junior college. Also, one of the reasons (among many) that college in general is so expensive is that most have very liberal (ohh, that word) polices wrt scholarships given to just the guy you are talking about, long on potential but short on funds.

  14. Yeah, you and stogy, gallivanting all over the world making humanity safe, probably have matching decoder rings.

    This was purely capitalism baby.

  15. I’ve hesitated weighing in here, because I have an undecided view of the situation. I don’t have a college degree (though I did attend some college). In fact, I dropped out of high school, and only have a GED. But I do have a position that requires a BS according to the guidelines for the position. What’s interesting, is that when I applied for it, it wasn’t even an issue because of my experience in IT over the previous decade+. Now here I sit some…18 years after starting into my “career”, and I have done very well for myself. But I am by no means the norm, and there were a lot of years of meager income.

    Now I compare myself to two of my older brothers, and maybe I’m not so successful. One is managing partner for his law firm, and the other is General Counsel for a fortune 50 company. Both obviously have JD’s. So…how far would I have gone if I had gone to college when I was younger? And maybe followed them and gotten a JD? Still a question that haunts me even though I now make what I consider a very good living.

    But then you have my oldest brother, who also has a JD, and practiced law for years. That is until he was disbarred for essentially being lazy, gave up his firm, and got divorced in the process. He has lived with my mother for years due to that, and also some really bad financial decisions. Not exactly successful in his chosen career path even though he had all of the potential and qualifications of my other two brothers.

    So what does all this rambling mean? I don’t know. Education plays a part, but it’s not the deciding factor of whether someone can be successful or not.

    I do like Mike Rowe’s take on vocational schools, and think we need to address the skills gap in this country. It’s certainly better than recommending virtually worthless liberal arts degrees and tens of thousands of student loan debt to every high school graduate.

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