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Is A College Degree Valuable Without Job Skills?

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When you’re entering college at 17 or 18, you’re often encouraged to broaden your horizons and pursue what interests you. But is that a good plan for long-term career success? Unfortunately, this type of advice can sometimes lead to students gaining skills and knowledge that may very likely be virtually useless upon graduation. I am not saying people should sacrifice their interests for the sake of a good-paying career, but they at least need to be made fully aware of how their decisions in college will affect their career opportunities down the road. In my own life, I can think of many people who graduated with fancy degrees and lots of knowledge, but had no actual work experience or valuable job skills, which put them behind the proverbial eight ball when it came time to look for a job.

I do feel bad for students like the one described in this New York Time’s article, who have been told a rather fuzzy story about higher education being the entry point to a good, solid, middle-class life, with a salaried, 9 to 5 job. It’s tough for these students because most of them have never been given any direction by the school or their family as to what skills are essential to getting that nice, salaried job. In the case of the woman in this article, she didn’t realize her options would be severely limited by pursuing an interdisciplinary degree in religious and women’s studies. Despite her note in a follow-up to that article where she states that her program was “academically rigorous and helped prepare me for innumerable future careers,” it’s very questionable how much value she really got out of the program. As a friend pointed out, since she’s currently a photographer’s assistant and barely paying the bills, apparently it hasn’t actually brought her those innumerable future careers. She may have gained great research skills, learned to think analytically, and grasped complicated topics withing her discipline, but unfortunately those sorts of skills are not enough to qualify for the majority of attractive, entry-level jobs.

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Sometimes these sorts of stories about liberal arts schools annoy me, because I too have a fancy liberal arts degree with lots of focus on writing, speaking, and thinking abstractly, and many times it seems that the value of those skill is going down. I also came out of school with a big lump of debt (about $25k) and sometimes wonder if I had been properly prepared by my family, friends, and college advisers to gain the optimal experience at my high-powered private university.

Today, employers are looking for skills, not just the “B.A.” after your name on your resume. You can spend all the time in the world dabbling in different concentrations and racking up debt in college, but you need to make sure you are learning valuable skills, much of which can be gained through actual work experience. Luckily for me, I worked multiple jobs in college our of necessity to pay off some of my expenses. It turned out that it was the experience from these jobs that elevated me above my peers to get my first entry-level job out of college. My employers have always heavily valued skill and experience over degrees. Previous work experience illustrates that you have a proven ability to show up and do work hard at something for eight hours or more a day.

Did the skills I learned in the college classroom go down the drain without any use? Not at all. Now that I have gained valuable, real-world, work experience, I am at a point in my career where the analytical and abstract skills I learned in college can be put to great use to further my career and differentiate myself from my colleagues as I continue to try to climb the ladder. But if these skills were all I had to show for my college experience at my first interview, they’d have passed me over in favor of somebody who actually had some job skills!

We also tend to forget about the many ways that you can earn a good living without a four year degree – people complain about the plumber costing $100 an hour, but few actually think about the fact that these high rates mean the plumber makes more than they do per hour. Skilled trades are not the flashiest or easiest way to earn a living, but they’ll always be in demand. Occupational and physical therapy assistants also make a good living (usually with good hours!) and don’t require four years to get there.

What do you think? Does a bachelor’s degree really qualify you to do a wide variety of things, even without specific job skills? What’s your take on going to school for a degree that doesn’t train you to do a job?

(photo credit: Ralph and Jenny)

Kira Botkin
Kira is a longtime blogger and serial entrepreneur who enjoys gardening, garage sales, and finding stray animals. She lives in Columbus, Ohio, where football is a distinct season, and by day runs a research study for people with multiple sclerosis. She hopes that the MoneyCrashers team can help you achieve your goals and live a great life.

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