Do You Need a Degree?

Do you need a degree

What’s the one piece of advice you’ve heard all throughout high school, and your early adult life? That you need a degree! The job market is competitive and if you want to stay ahead, the least you can do is graduate from a university that can give you those advantages. But is this really the case?

If you ask young people in their 20’s if they practically benefitted from their degree in their career, the vast majority of them will say no. Not if they think the degree helped them get a job (that has more to do with signaling than their actual knowledge), but do they actually use what they learned in university in their day to day jobs. Try it for yourself if you don’t believe me, but I have a feeling that you know this is true. So, how can we reconcile this difference between the age-old advice we’ve been told and the reality we see with our own eyes? There are a few things that I believe make a difference in the actual value that a degree has.

1) Oversupply of degrees

If you know basic economics, then you’ve probably heard about the concept of supply and demand. The more supply there is of something, the less demand there is for it. Degrees used to be a lot more in demand because there wasn’t a large percentage of university graduates. Now that a larger number of high schoolers are graduating from college, the supply has gone up, and thus the demand has gone down.

2) Signaling is becoming less important

There are 2 main factors that determine the value of a university/college degree. 1) The actual education it provides (the knowledge it instills in the graduate) and 2) The positive signal that it shows to employers that this person is someone that would be qualified for the job (if you’re interested more in this, Brian Caplan in his book “The Case Against Education” studies this in great detail). So basically you need to ask yourself, are you more interested in learning to do a job well, or are you looking for a position that requires signaling.

For example, if you want to become a coder, it is far better to learn the skills of being a coder (learning how to program either on your own by building projects or by attending a bootcamp), then by going to a 4 year degree where you will only learn the basics of how to program. However, if you are seeking out a job in certain sectors that care more about the signal a degree provides (well-established fields like doctors, lawyers, accountants, working for the government, universities etc.), then you may want to get a degree.  For most technical fields though (programmers, graphic designers, videographers etc.) the signal is becoming less valuable than the practical skills, so degrees are losing their value.

3) Degrees are becoming less practical and can’t keep up

The world is changing so rapidly, that it’s hard for university institutions to keep up. If they want to make changes to the curriculum it takes months for them to research the changes, months for them to get the changes approved, and months for them to actually implement it. Meanwhile, the world around them changes, and by the time they implement the new changes they were planning, they again fall behind. I work a lot in Digital Marketing, and I can see before my eyes that this is a field that changes every day! A lot of vocational fields are like this: programming, web development,  UX design, SEO and videography to name a few. Even people that are currently working in the field already, have to constantly learn about changes in their industry (by watching YouTube videos and taking courses), otherwise, they’ll be left behind.

4) Intersection of careers

Careers don’t fit into nice little boxes anymore, there are a ton of careers that currently exist that are less than 10 years old. For example, social media managers, influencer marketers, and drone experts to name a few. These not only are careers that are not matched onto any existing 4 year degrees but they also are often an intersection of multiple degrees combined together (or a talent stack, as defined by Scott Adams). Having a degree in something on its own is often not enough. You need to be able to have multiple skills related to the job, which brings me to the final point.

5) Being self-directed can’t be taught

The last point I want to make in this article is to mention that degrees can give you a good base on a topic, but there is one skill that it cannot teach: being self-directed. In the modern world, nobody can know everything. Everyone has to be constantly learning, without wanting to always validate what they learned from the approval of others. You have to be self-directed and want to learn for the sake of learning. Otherwise, with or without a degree, you’ll be left behind.


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Director of Marketing & Learning Programs at AstroLabs. Author of the book Timeless Digital Marketing.

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