As with challenges to many of our trusted institutions in recent years, academia and its degree granting authorities have seen increasing challenges to their value. The criticisms towards academia are numerous, leaving students to soberly assess their degree and educational goals. What’s a degree worth? What can you do with it? How much time and money will it take to get it? Is there value in the degree beyond what’s shown in a cost/benefit analysis?
In my experience as a finance and accounting recruiter, many of the searches that I have are for these accounting roles that request CPAs — so there is an obvious focus on degrees. To complete the CPA designation, you need a degree, so it is expected in most accounting roles.
However, from time to time I meet accountants that have worked their way up in the accounting field without a designation (some very good ones, might I add). They may have a degree, but didn’t move on and complete the CPA; or some have completed a two-year year certificate in accounting. The challenge here, particularly at a senior level, is that they will compete with candidates that have the credentials, which makes it tough for them to secure those senior level roles. When working with controllers, banks also prefer credentials — another reason companies look for the designation. So, in order to get a senior role, you’d have to jump through all of the necessary hoops.
So, recruiters now have to wonder if some of the best and brightest candidates are not being considered for hire due to what has frequently become a standard requirement: a university degree. Are they passing on the next Steve Jobs or Bill Gates? Both Jobs and Gates famously did not get their degrees and yet started up highly successful companies.1 Or is there value in the university experience that can lead to the next big idea. After all, Mark Zuckerberg was a student at Harvard when he created Facebook.2 So, what’s it worth?
A Blunt Assessment, Pre-Celebrity Admission Scandals
For a blunt assessment of where and how the academic system is failing, it is worth looking at professor Christian Smith’s 2018 piece for The Chronicle Review, “Higher Education Is Drowning in BS”. In it, Smith describes both a general and his personal feeling of helplessness in trying to fix the broken system:
“Most people involved also feel helpless to fight it, don’t want to risk careers that benefit from the status quo, or are professional boosters of the existing system and so are obliged to yammer on about how great everything is.”2
Smith lays out a list of problems in self-reflection as a teacher and researcher within the university system, which he still believes in. These are problems – he uses a more colourful term – that have piled up in the system for several decades. Smith published his article in January 2018, so the celebrity admission scandal3 was still a year away from being on that list. Regardless, such scandals add devastating blows to the perceived worth of a university degree.
When a student card from USC becomes becomes nothing more than a fashion accessory for wannabe social media stars, there’s a problem. When celebrities or other parents with resources and influence buy their kids admission into degree granting programs, there’s an even bigger problem. And when one of the most prestigious universities in the world, Harvard, is at the centre of highly publicized admissions scandals, it is enough to make anyone question the time and cost of a prized university degree. .4 So, what’s that worth?
Familiar Critiques, Standard Outcomes
Many items on Smiths non-prioritized and in-progress list are familiar critiques. For example, universities are no longer places for asking Big Questions, but rather they have become massive organizations modelled “on factories, state bureaucracies, and shopping malls.” 5 This matters because we increasingly rely on networked information systems and digital media, while concerns such as “truth, reality, reason, evidence, argument, civility, and our common humanity” 6 now seem to be in question. Universities don’t seem to be getting the Big Question jobs done anymore. So, what’s that worth?
Instead, many universities have effectively become specialized training grounds for job placements and career advancement, while “processing hordes of students as if they were livestock, numbers waiting in line, and shopping consumers.”7 The academic community, seeking efficiency in this systems, then becomes fragmented while minimizing communication between departments, faculties, and disciplines that are “unable to talk with each other about obvious shared concerns.”8
This leaves a recruiter in a peculiar situation when assessing whether the degree requirement matters for the job and/or for the candidate.
Fixing the Right Problems vs. Asking the Right Questions
Faced with potentially missing great talent due to a degree requirement, the recruiter has some questions to ask:
1) Are there certifiable skills and experiences involved in the job that are vital in its performance and are only gained by the degree program? A degree in some fields necessarily acts as a licence to practice their profession legally. So there’s no way to get around that kind of requirement in those cases.9
2) Does the candidate have equivalent certifications from other parts of the world that need to be considered? And is there a significant level of relevant experience on a job that acts as equivalent to a degree. In fact, “executive” MBA degrees include such a “years of experience” requirement for admission.10
3) Most provocatively, do you (a) hire someone without a degree, but can communicate how he or she was able to analyze the cost/benefit of a degree program while identifying other avenues for gaining valuable experience, and then acted decisively by choosing not to get a degree based on that analysis? Or (b) go with the candidate that made it through the complex and challenging institutional academic systems mentioned above, survived it, and has the degree to prove it?
Finally, if you’re the boss and not the recruiter, who ultimately makes the call on the degree requirement and the final hire? For the boss and the company, what’s that worth?
1. Top 10 College Dropouts.” Time. Time Inc. Accessed August 13, 2019. http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/completelist/0,29569,1988080,00.html
2. Smith, Christian. “Higher Education Is Drowning in BS.” The Chronicle of Higher Education. The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 9, 2018. https://www.chronicle.com/article/Higher-Education-Is-Drowning/242195.
3. New York Times. “College Admissions Scandal: Your Questions Answered.” The New York Times, April 29, 2019. https://nyti.ms/2UJ3OGU.
4. Phillips, Sarah. “A Brief History of Facebook.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, July 25, 2007. https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2007/jul/25/media.newmedia.
5. Smith. “Higher Education Is Drowning in BS”.
6. Smith. “Higher Education Is Drowning in BS”.
7. Smith. “Higher Education Is Drowning in BS”.
8. Smith. “Higher Education Is Drowning in BS”.
9. “Express Entry.” What Prospective Candidates Need to Know. Accessed August 13, 2019. http://www.cicsimmigration.com/canadian-immigration-information/express-entry/
10 Beedie School of Business.” Admissions – Beedie School of Business, SFU, Canada. Accessed August 13, 2019. https://beedie.sfu.ca/graduate/executive-mba/emba/admissions.