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Does a College Degree Still Prepare You for Today’s Jobs?

Employers and business leaders constantly complain about the gap between what students learn in college and what they need to know in order to succeed in the workplace. This is especially concerning when we take into account large — and always-growing — number of people who earn college degrees: over 40% in OECD countries, and close to 50% in America.

While there is a clear premium on education — recent reports from The Economist show that the ROI of a college degree has never been higher — the value derived a college degree drops as the overall number of graduates increases. That’s why a college degree will increase income by more than 20% in sub-saharan Africa (where degrees are relatively rare), but only 9% in Scandinavia (where 40% of adults have degrees). At the same time, as college education becomes more common, recruiters and employers will increasingly require them, regardless of whether they’re really necessary for a particular job. So, while tertiary degrees may still be the pathway to higher-paying jobs, the same employers giving candidates these jobs are impairing themselves — and young people — by narrowing their candidate pool to college graduates along. In an era of ever-present disruption and unpredictable job changes, it is difficult to argue that the knowledge acquisition historically associated with a university degree is still the most important thing.

There are quite a few data-driven arguments that call into question the actual rather than perceived value of a college degree. First, meta-analytic reviews have long shown that the correlation between education level and job performance is shaky. In fact, the research suggests that intelligence scores are a much better indicator of job potential. If one choses between a candidate with a college degree and one with a higher intelligence score, the latter would outperform the former in most jobs, especially when those jobs demand constant thinking and learning. Academic grades may indicate how much a candidate has studied and absorbed, but their performance on an intelligence test reflects their actual capacity to learn, reason, and think logically.

College degrees are also correlated with social class and play a role in restricting social mobility and exacerbating inequality. While many universities do select students on merit, even merit-based selection comes down to variables that depress the diversity of admitted students. In a great number of societies, there is a high level of assortative mating linked to income and class. In the U.S., those with high levels of wealth are more likely to marry other affluent people, and of course wealthy families can afford to pay for college tuition, private tutors, extracurricular practices, and other privileges that boost their child’s chances of landing a spot in an elite college. That, in turn, has consequences for the entire trajectory of that individual’s future, including their future career prospects — offering a decided advantage to some and a clear disadvantage to others.

When employers place high value on a college degree, it’s typically because they regard this as a reliable indicator of a candidate’s intellectual competence. But if that is the main criteria, why not just use psychological assessments instead, which are much more predictive of job performance and less confounded with socioeconomic status and demographic variables?

Of course universities could significantly boost the market value of the college degree if they put more focus on developing critical soft skills among students. Recruiters and employers are unlikely to be impressed by candidates who don’t show a minimum level of people-skills. This may even be one of the largest differences between what universities and employers look for in applicants. While employers want candidates with higher levels of EQ, resilience, empathy, and integrity, those are rarely attributes that universities nurture or select for in admissions. As the impact of AI and disruptive technology grows, candidates who can perform tasks that machines cannot are becoming more valuable — and that underscores the growing importance of soft skills, which are hard for machines to emulate.

In a recent ManpowerGroup study of 2,000 employers, more than half of organizations cited problem-solving, collaboration, customer service, and communication as the top kills. Similarly,  a recent report by Josh Bersin showed that today’s organizations are as likely to pick candidates based on adaptability, culture, fit, and growth potential as for in-demand technical skills (such as python, analytics, cloud computing).

Finally, there is also a massive opportunity for colleges to reclaim their relevance by giving students the tools to fill the learning gap many managers experience when they are promoted into a leadership position. Today, people commonly take on leadership positions without much formal management training. Often, the strongest individual contributors are promoted into management, despite the fact that they haven’t always developed the skills required to lead a team. But if more colleges focused on teaching those skills, employers would have a bigger pool of candidates with leadership potential.

More and more students are spending extraordinary sums money (and usually taking on significant debt) to achieve a college degree, and for the majority, the main goal is pragmatic: to enhance their employability and be a valuable contributor to the economy. Even if those who pursue a university degree deem it beneficial, companies can still  change the narrative by placing less emphasis on “higher education” as a measure of intelligence and potential, and instead approach hiring with more open-mindedness.

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Emery Reddy