After a 36-year career at Adrian College, I well understand how much higher education can add to a student's life and career. It was great seeing so many students grow into their own potential during their Adrian years!
My own life was deeply influenced by my studies at Willamette University, Johns Hopkins, and Harvard. Indeed, I owe my life itself to Willamette, where my mother and father met. But it has become clear to me that many employers have overdone the requirement of a college degree for so many jobs.
As Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping noted, "It doesn't matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice." If an applicant can do the work, why let the absence of a college degree stand in the way of hiring him or her?
Employers sometimes use the degree requirement to avoid the bother and expense of evaluating too many individuals on their own merits.
Employers sometimes use the degree requirement to avoid the bother and expense of evaluating too many individuals on their own merits. And having finished a degree does suggest the persistence and self-discipline that can make for a good employee in any line of work.
However, applicants lacking the degree may also have the same self-discipline and other personal qualities, but may have grown up in circumstances that did not allow going to college. These will often be people from poor or minority families.
And not all college graduates are well educated. Some coast through without putting in much effort or learning very much, partying, taking "snap" classes, sometimes even cheating.
The distinction between schooling and education has long been noted. Whether we have attended a university or not, if we are educated a large part of that education is due to self-education.
Colleges cannot just pour an education into students like wine into a bottle, but can provide guidance and experiences that help students educate themselves. Ideally, this self-education continues long after graduation.
Although helpful, a few years of formal guidance are not totally essential, which is why there are many very well educated people who never set foot in a university.
When totally new subjects like computer science come along, even universities cannot demand that their faculty members in that field have formal credentials, since there were previously no programs to provide them with those credentials. Universities must sometimes content themselves with hiring cats who can catch mice without looking too closely at where and how those cats taught themselves to catch mice.
Often during emergencies employers become willing to consider hiring people they would previously have turned their noses up at, and they work out well. During World War II, with many of the men in the armed forces, job opportunities for women ("Rosie the Riveter") and minority people suddenly blossomed.
The withdrawal of many people from the job market during the current pandemic has led several big corporations to relax their previous degree requirements, even for highly technical fields. Apprenticeship programs are becoming a growth industry. This recent development may help us learn some benefits of flexibility.
It might be tempting to enact laws forbidding employers from demanding college degrees before they will hire people. However, this would be a terrible idea. There are certain kinds of jobs where the experience of earning a degree can provide very valuable background, and employers should be free to make their own trade-offs between conflicting considerations.
Society should avoid telling its youth that college is the only route to a satisfying life and career. A university education has become much more expensive that it was 60 years ago when my generation was college age, and there are many well-paying and useful careers that have never required a degree.
And hopefully, more employers will reconsider their employment policies and discontinue requiring degrees except when it makes sense.
Paul F. deLespinasse