Oct 13, 2015
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

The recent stories about Ernst & Young de-emphasizing college performance as a hiring criterion, and the even-more-important case of CapGemini now hiring future consultants right out of high school, has gotten more employers wondering about whether focusing on hiring college grads — in most cases the best ones — is really worth it.

There is no doubt that college grads, on average, are much more able than those who don’t go on to college. They were more able before they started college as well, and they are also at least four years older — the average graduate takes about 5-6 years to finish a four-year degree.

But, how much of their better performance is because of that and how much of it is because of what they learned in college? We don’t know.

We do know, though, that how well they perform in college as measured by grades is not a predictor of how they perform in jobs. They predict whether you go to graduate school and become a doctor, say, but not whether you perform better as a manager.

More careers where degrees don’t matter

Certainly there are occupations that are virtually impossible to do without a college degree in that field, such as engineering. But there are an increasing number of very practical-sounding degrees like communications, tourism management, health care administration, where the degrees really don’t seem to matter.

A revealing survey conducted by the Chronicle of Higher Education asked employers what they actually looked for in new grads who applied for jobs. Of the top five attributes they listed, only one — relevance of the college major — had anything to do with classroom experiences. They were interested in work experience, especially internships, and extra-curricular programs, because they wanted to see whether the new grads can get along with other people, function in a work environment, and get things done.

When asked about specific academic skills that are important at work, survey after survey reports basic skills such as the ability to get along, to write clearly, problem-solving, and judgment.

There isn’t much disagreement between the priorities of employers and those of educators. It is certainly possible to learn those things in college. In fact, they have been the traditional goal of liberal arts programs.

The sensible alternative is first for colleges to get better at what we say we are supposed to be doing, which is preparing students to write, to reason, and process data, to work with others, and so forth. The second part, which is new, is to partner with employers who say they want such students and convince them that our college has the kind of grads employers say they want.

The need to partner with employers

Too many colleges have expected employers to find them and have treated their careers office as an afterthought. Still, shifting our attention there is probably easier and cheaper than creating real academic programs to match onto job titles like international tourism.

So, if you are an employer, where does this leave you?

It is probably not feasible to hire students right out of high school for jobs where we now hire college grads. The latter are just more grown up and more able to handle the independence most jobs require. Companies like CapGemini have the scale to adjust jobs to younger, high-school grads and help them grow up with the company. (They start them with very simple IT tasks and also send them to school one day per week with the goal of eventually earning a college degree.)

But it does mean that we shouldn’t obsess when hiring about grades or about job-specific majors. When we see more mature candidates who have not been to or finished college, we shouldn’t rule out hiring them.
If we have jobs that don’t require college now, we might well consider good performers in them as candidates for entry-level jobs where we now require college degrees, just as most of the great corporations did in the past.
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.