Yes, it teaches us not to lie on our resume, not to leave a misimpression or omission about our credentials. But why did Walmart’s former Vice President of Communications David Tovar feel the need to demonstrate he graduated from college? I can’t speak for him but we know the answer… it’s because he needed the degree. You need to graduate from college if you want to make a living wage working for someone else. Like most employers, Walmart will not hire you for salaried sales or management without a college degree (example).
I’ve been reading Michael Ellsberg’s The Education of Millionaires: Everything You Won’t Learn in College About How to Be Successful and other anti-college writing. The common position is that people do not need a college degree, pointing to many rich, entrepreneurial people as examples (High-tech company founders, information sales people, etc). And while I found I agreed with Ellsberg on many practical things that are wrong with higher education (and he has some great networking tips), the anti-college argument ultimately fails as a good career planning approach.
First, a college degree or postsecondary training credential is necessary for most living-wage employment in this country; the statistics about unemployment and salaries do not lie. One reason employers require a college degree or post-secondary training credential in hiring is because it’s an easy way to screen people out, to narrow the hiring pool. So many people are looking for jobs; employers can afford to be picky. Also, minimum job qualifications like an educational degree are legally necessary in a world where equal rights laws guard against discrimination. So does it really make sense to voluntarily cut yourself off from millions of jobs?
The anti-college crowd argues that you can creatively sell yourself into a job and if that doesn’t work (that employer must be an unimaginative boob), then start your own business. Having been happily self-employed myself at one time, I get the freedom, flexibility and success that can give you.
But self-employment and entrepreneurship is not for everyone. Not everyone has a strong Enterprising Holland personality type, someone who likes to and is good at persuading, leading, and selling things or ideas. Or is an extrovert. And while I agree with Dan Pink and many others that sales skills are needed in nearly every job now, to advise young people that a college degree is unnecessary, substituting sales and marketing skills through self-employment, is a naïve oversimplification of our work world. That's as bad as saying a college degree = a high-paying job.
Self-employment should always be a fallback option, if not a promising option for some. Having practiced labor and employment law for 10 years, I think people should be prepared, as a matter of emotional and financial survival, to be out of a job at any time, for any reason. But being prepared also means having proof of skills and education to support a job search.
Instead of warning people away from college degrees entirely, we can start by helping people approach their college years in smarter ways – identifying majors and programs of study that match their interests and Holland personality, learning more marketing skills, seeking out experiential education programs that don’t require an unpaid internship (that only wealthier parents can afford to subsidize), and adopting a flexible, free agent approach to the world of work.