Is College Really Necessary? (Asks the woman with an MBA)

Kathryn Dillon

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Some of the wisest people I know don’t have college degrees. They’ve studied at the University of Life, and sometimes the School of Hard Knocks, but their thirst for knowledge is unquenchable.

And yet if you put my resume next to theirs in front of most employers, they won't stand a chance. I went to school and got good grades like a proper little soldier and I have the degrees to prove it.

I hold a Bachelor of Science in Journalism (minors in music and psychology) and graduated with honors. I earned an MBA in Marketing with a 4.0 GPA while working a full-time salaried position at a luxury furniture company.

While employers are beginning to recognize the value of life and job experience, many companies still mindlessly emphasize that piece of paper, even if the position you’re applying for doesn’t relate to your degree at all.

I think that’s narrow-minded and short-sighted. It’s also just plain wrong.

Are we really learning, or are we just jumping through hoops?

I adored school as a child, but I forgot at a regrettably young age that it was supposed to be about learning, not just achieving.

What started as a joyful experience became a means to an end.

We didn’t talk about things like that in the early 1980s, and I’m not sure we’ve progressed since then.

· Do well in grade school so you can get into the college-prep classes later on. (It’s only gotten worse. People even have their infants on waiting lists for the right NURSERY school.)

· Do well in high school so you can get into a good university. Oh, and don’t challenge your teachers along the way — you’re not here to THINK.

· Do well in college so you can get a good job.

· Go back to grad school after launching your career, because your company has tuition reimbursement and you want to advance, don't you? But never forget that the amount of money you get back is frequently based on your grades.

Perhaps I would have learned more if I hadn’t been so worried about the grades all the time.

Avid learners aren’t necessarily college graduates

My husband remembers far more from his high school education than I do from mine, though his grades weren’t nearly as good. He was uncertain about what to do after graduation and didn’t go straight to college.

But he retained knowledge about the things that interested him, or that he felt were important. I don’t remember much at all, because I was usually cramming for a test via rote memorization at the last minute, simply because I could.

My Grandpa Lambert didn’t make it through high school, but he was one of the most voracious readers I’ve ever known. My father used to tell us how Grandpa would borrow his college textbooks when he was home between semesters.

He read them cover to cover because he thought they were interesting.

Most college students don’t read their textbooks because they’re interesting. They read them because they HAVE to.

Life experience complements education

The first time I took economics in college, I flunked it.

I waited too long to drop the class, and realized suddenly that I could study 24/7 for a best-case-scenario C and likely get mediocre grades in my other courses as well, or I could give up on the economics and get straight As in everything else.

I opted for the latter. Even my college-professor father, making a stern visit to my apartment after I neglected to inform him of my plan, had to appreciate the logic. I don’t think economics made much sense to him either.

I learned about the world of business by running one. I bought into a worker-owned restaurant and nightclub when I was 21 and still in school. I needed a job and it seemed way cooler than working night shifts at Wendy’s, which I’d done for a couple of years.

Before I knew it, I was reviewing financial statements with relish, using the information I gleaned to participate in business decisions. Elected to the board of directors, I oversaw the annual business planning process and learned I had a knack for it.

Suddenly, numbers seemed to make sense because they related to something that was important to me.

In graduate school, I had to take economics again. I’d eventually fought my way through it in college but I never really got it and I certainly didn’t love it. For some reason, in grad school, it made sense. I believe that’s because I had the backdrop of hands-on business experience to provide context.

Grad school was also the first time I pursued formal education because I had a personal desire to do so. I mean, I always thought I wanted to go to college, but I never really felt like I had other options either.

Now, I see the opportunity to learn all around me. That’s a perspective I gained outside the classroom.

A college degree doesn’t guarantee knowledge or common sense

Here’s a real-life example of why a degree doesn’t necessarily mean squat.

Once there was a guy who bought a bar in a small college town. He liked the idea of owning a bar in a small college town. And he had a business degree, so of course, he had the knowledge and skills to run a successful enterprise, right?

Wrong. He had no idea how to make a business work, in spite of his supposed education.

He had a pool table but refused to make change when people wanted to play, directing them instead to a shop across the street for quarters. (Three guesses how many of these potential customers actually returned.) He didn’t create an inviting atmosphere, and many afternoons could be found hanging out by himself watching game shows on TV.

He wouldn’t even restock his liquor inventory because — wait for it — “if I buy it, they’ll just drink it, and I’ll have to buy more”.

This is an extreme and humorous example, and that guy doesn’t own that bar anymore, but most of us could share case studies from our own career experiences too.

· A manager who has no idea how to motivate a team and got his job solely because he was the applicant with the degree.

· A recent grad who has to be hand-held every step of the way because she didn’t have to work hard in college and therefore doesn’t know how to manage her time. (Spoiler alert — this could have been me, without that priceless small business experience.)

Most schools don’t teach life skills and they sure as heck don’t teach common sense. Many don’t stop to help students understand how their classroom learning is relevant to their lives beyond the classroom.

Please understand, I’m blaming our educational system and structure here, not teachers. Standardized tests are squelching the enthusiasm of teachers and students alike.

Can’t we recognize that some students don’t test well but may outperform the effective testers in real-life situations? I had friends growing up who worked three times as hard as I did and were every bit as intelligent, but struggled with tests.

How frustrating it must have been for them to watch me ace exams for which I barely studied. But who learned more about having a strong work ethic in that scenario?

Companies need to broaden their perspectives too.

When I first joined the ranks of Corporate America after several years as a small business owner, my boss and I were tasked with hiring a mid-level manager for our department. We found just the perfect guy, a great fit based on his skills and his attitude. One problem though — no college degree.

We couldn’t hire him. Let me be very clear, my boss was the head of the department. He fought hard for this candidate. And he was ultimately not allowed to hire the right person for the job due to an unyielding corporate human resources policy.

There are different types of education. Some people take the formal path, often spending a lot of money and going into significant amounts of debt. Others choose another path and acquire valuable life experience that serves them well in a variety of careers.

I have friends who entered the workforce right out of high school and were already managers before most of us finished our degrees. I would venture a guess that their maturity level and skills were far greater than their peers who often partied their way through college, even those who managed to get decent grades in the process.

And yet these managers may find themselves stuck at a certain level, unable to level up in their careers, due to outdated and closed-minded company policies.

I am very proud of my academic achievements, especially my graduate degree, because it was a choice I made for myself and I worked my butt off for it. But I don’t necessarily believe that those achievements make me a better employee or even a better manager than someone with actual, solid, documented work and life experience but no degree.

So many of us, myself included, are not even working in our undergraduate field.

As the costs of higher education continue to skyrocket, and graduates leave school with prohibitive loans, isn’t it time we started placing an appropriate value on work and life experience?

College is the right choice for some people, but not for others. Rather than arbitrarily requiring degrees, let’s consider individuals based on their unique skills and knowledge, regardless of how those things were acquired.

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I live and write in Northeast Ohio, about everything from food to mental health, pets to relationships, music, art, and sports. My articles usually have a personal slant because I believe we as a society and as individuals grow stronger through truth-telling and connection.

Cleveland Heights, OH
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