Our growing obsession with college degrees is lazy, ineffective and racist.

September 25, 2018

People

Photo : Deathtothestockphoto.com

I need to confess something. Something I’m not particularly proud of. When someone announces that they have an MBA, I have to consciously remind myself not to discriminate against them. It’s bad isn’t it – I’m quite ashamed of myself as I write this.

And it’s wrong – some of my best and smartest friends have MBA’s. The two Rob’s at Reward Gateway – Rob Hicks and Rob Boland. They both have MBA’s, and they are two of the best executives that I know. My friend Luke has just got one from Oxford too. And they’re nice people, good people, smart people. As I said, this prejudice is not something I’m particularly proud of.

It’s not what you learn on an MBA that puts me off; it’s the snooty elitism that I associate with it. I think of it as a bunch of white men sitting around thinking they’re smarter than everyone else. I know it’s wrong and I’m kind of sorry.

Mind you, then you get the Harvard or LBS alumni lot and sometimes they can be quite unbearable.

One of the good things an MBA gives you is a network – a network of people that you studied with and graduated something with. A network of other mostly white men who you can re-enforce biases and create a clique with. God, I’m glad I dropped out of my MBA halfway through. Being an MBA drop out feels a much more comfortable badge to me.

However, long before you get an MBA you need a college degree – you need one of those to get anywhere in life, don’t you? Well, the answer, increasingly,  is “Yes”.

Increasingly, it’s a college or university degree that you need to get anywhere 

9 out of 10 new jobs created in America in the last 12 months went to people with a college degree. The Alliance for Excellent Education forecasted that by 2020, 65 per cent of all jobs could require a college degree.

It’s a situation that Joseph Fuller, professor of management practice at Harvard Business School has termed “degree inflation“.

He analysed 26 million job postings and surveyed 600 business and HR executives to understand what was going on. His study found that for a typical middle skills job title such as production supervisor, sales representative or support technician, 67 per cent of the job adverts required a bachelor’s degree or higher despite just 16 per cent of workers already in those positions holding a degree.

It seems that many employers believe that college-educated employees would be smarter, more productive, and more engaged than workers without a degree. But Joseph’s research found the opposite.

He found that they cost companies more money to employ,  were less engaged in their jobs, have a higher turnover rate, and reached productivity levels only on par with high school graduates doing the same job. It seems that over-specifying educational requirements is counter-productive.

Mandatory degree requirements leaves talent abandoned on the shelf and inhibits attempts to increase the diversity of our teams.

There are serious gaps in access to college education for black and Hispanic people in America and the UK.

Black school leavers are more likely to have grown up in a lower-income household, are more likely to be a carer for a child or elder relative and have hugely less family wealth to rely on than their white colleagues. Each of these aspects dramatically inhibits access to an expensive college education, regardless of the nascent talent, or ability in the person.

University is expensive and time-consuming. In the UK tuition fees alone men that a standard three-year degree will incur £27,000 of student debt, plus the cost of living for the period. With average family wealth for African American families in the US only $11,300, compared to $134,000 for a white family, there is significantly less support and opportunity available for potential black students.

data and visualisation from the Urban Institute, urban.org

There is also significant bias and discrimination in our education systems that our black friends have to deal with.

Just this year, UCAS, the UK college application clearing authority released the shocking statistic that black students applying for a university place were 21 times more likely to have their application investigated than white applicants.

This follows the report last year by Labour MP, David Lammy, that 13 Oxford University colleges failed to make a single offer to any black candidate across an entire six-year period. In the five years to 2015, only three of Oxford’s 32 colleges made an offer to a black A’ level candidate every year. This is despite nearly 400 black students getting three A-grades or better in their A-levels each year.

Even when black students get into university, they have a more challenging time. After adjusting for A-level grade differences, they are less likely to get a top grade with 53% getting a first or 2:1 in 2015/2016 compared to white students where 78% get a first or 2:1.

Baroness Amos, the UK’s first black woman to lead a university, said there are “deep-seated prejudices and stereotypes which need to be overcome.”, adding “Not even 1% of UK professors are black”.

Degree requirements aren’t just lazy and exclusive; they’re also damaging because they assume a level of competence, skill or ability that would be better tested for during more rigorous and nuanced selection process.

Google have the scale and skill to analyse data on all aspects of their business and have really moved our understanding on by their application of this to HR.

They crunched the data on thousands of employees looking for the correlation between college degree performance and later job performance. They found none.

That’s right – no correlation at all between college degree performance and job performance – except in a few people who were just out of school. Google no longer requires a college degree as an entry requirement for any role.

In an interview with Adam Bryant for The New York Times, Google’s former Senior Vice President of People Operations Lazlo Bock said :

“After two or three years, your ability to perform at Google is completely unrelated to how you performed when you were in school because the skills you required in college are very different. You’re also fundamentally a different person. You learn and grow, you think about things differently.

… I think academic environments are artificial environments. People who succeed there are sort of finely trained, they’re conditioned to succeed in that environment. …You want people who like figuring out stuff where there is no obvious answer.”

The real issue is that most jobs just don’t need college degrees, they’re only being used as an easy (or lazy) way for companies and recruiters to cut candidate lists down and make recruitment seem efficient.

Efficient recruiting is not the same as effective recruiting

Recruiters have a critical role in organisations – get talent into the organisation. In a world where many skills are in short supply and companies everywhere claim to be trying to improve diversity in their teams, the requirement for a college degree is working against them,

But whilst the overall trend in business is for more jobs to require college degrees, an increasing band of influential employers is walking the other way and removing the requirement completely.

Companies ditching the degree requirement include Apple, Penguin Random House, Costco, Whole Foods, Hilton, Starbucks, IBM and Bank of America.

Even stuffy management consultant EY ditched the requirement in 2015, reversing a policy that previously banned applicants without a 2:1 college degree and three B-grades at A-level.

Talking to the the Huffington Post, Maggie Stilwell, EY’s managing partner for talent said :

“Academic qualifications will still be taken into account and indeed remain an important consideration when assessing candidates as a whole, but will no longer act as a barrier to getting a foot in the door.

Our own internal research of over 400 graduates found that screening students based on academic performance alone was too blunt an approach to recruitment.

It found no evidence to conclude that previous success in higher education correlated with future success in subsequent professional qualifications undertaken.

It’s important to understand I am not suggesting people don’t need an education. I’m just suggesting there is more than one way to get it.

Increasingly what we need in business is what used to be called “soft skills”, which I always thought was an unfortunate term given they are much harder to teach, coach and learn. Ability to think creatively, to lead people, to communicate clearly, to listen, to have empathy, to see past what is in front of you. Some of these skills are explored and learned on some college courses. But they can also be developed in many other places outside of college.

I’m not anti-education, far from it. I loved my time at University and would encourage anyone and everyone to go if they can and can afford it. But I know that access to university is not universal, and it is becoming less so not more so.

There are lots of ways that people can develop the skills and experience that we need in jobs. So let’s start with that – let’s work out what skills and talent we really need and then let’s interview and asses for if the candidate has them, without caring where they got them from.

If we do that, then we will unlock a pool of talent that we’re currently excluding. And that can only be for the betterment of all of our organisations.

Further Reading

Apple, IBM, and Google don’t care anymore if you went to college. Quartz at Work August 23, 2018 

The racial wealth gap is where yesterday’s injustice becomes today’s inequality. And it’s growing. Vox for Netflix Explained

Why Employers Must Stop Requiring College Degrees For Middle-Skill Jobs – Forbes Dec 20, 2017

Nine out of 10 new jobs are going to those with a college degree Marketwatech June 9th, 2018

About Glenn Elliott

Glenn Elliott is a technology entrepreneur, investor and advisor, MBA drop-out and recovering CEO with 20 years of experience. His bestselling book Build it: The Rebel Playbook for Employee Engagement is published by Wiley. He writes about people, culture, leadership, technology and the future of work weekly at www.glennelliott.me. 

If you liked this article you can make his day by commenting below, sharing it on LinkedIn, Twitter or joining his VIP list by subscribing to his blog.

Glenn's first book, the international HR bestseller, Build it : A Rebel Playbook for Employee Engagement is available on Kindle, iBooks and from any major bookseller worldwide.

2 Replies to “Our growing obsession with college degrees is lazy, ineffective and racist.”

  1. Rob Marsh says:

    The research from David Lammy is pretty shocking. I thought we were moving away from that systematic kind of racism but unfortunately it seems it’s still very much alive and kicking. Along with how that affects the diversity of our future business world I can’t help but think how it will affect the future of our political world as well. Really interesting and thorough stuff Glenn. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Olivia says:

    Hi Glenn. I enjoyed the blog and we talk about this a lot at London South Bank University (glad you loved your time here!) There’s another angle that I think needs consideration though. More often than not, the ‘value’ of a degree debate can be misleading when it’s just looked at from the perspective of employers finding great talent.

    Yes, perhaps some people don’t need a degree – they’re confident and resilient enough to go after what they want without one. However, it can be problematic to imply that a degree is no longer valuable (which I know isn’t what you are saying here, but there is a lot of talk about this publically).

    At LSBU we know that during the course of a degree, many students are able to transform negative beliefs about themselves and their academic abilities – beliefs that can be deeply entrenched for a variety of complex reasons. This is powerful stuff and has a long-lasting impact on their wellbeing and their family. Acknowledging this is critically important in the debate about social equality and higher education.

    Having negative beliefs about yourself or thinking that university ‘isn’t for you’ is likely to mean that you’re not going to think to yourself, ‘I know, I’ll apply to Google because they don’t require a degree’. So while I agree that the degree should not be mandatory for any employer, I don’t think this will help achieve the change we need to see in terms of diversity.

    A degree can really effective in going some way to ‘levelling the playing field’ as they say. It might be costly and risky, but it is effective.

    Our graduate employability rate is exceptional at LSBU and we won University of the Year for Graduate Employment for an unprecedented two years in a row recently. But it’s not easy!

    If employers really want to diversify, I think an important starting point is to stop going to the ‘top’ universities to find the ‘best students’, but it’s critical that they don’t stop going to universities at all – not all of them are articifical academic environments.

    We’d welcome more engagement from employers, not just to pop up at careers fairs, but to collaborate with us on how we really get a more inclusive workforce.

What do you think? Leave a comment or reply

© 2018 Glenn Elliott.

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