Should You Hire Someone Without a Degree?

Jan 15, 2018

Success in careers or business is determined by various factors. One common factor in question is how important a university degree is for success. It’s no secret that degree holders bring home a higher pay than those without one, but does the degree define their ability? Should CEOs, Directors and other decision makers completely disregard hiring those without a degree?

A report by the State Higher Education Officers Association in the US indicated that those with a master’s degree earn about $70,000 a year, bachelor’s graduates earn about $50,000 a year, and high school graduates earn an average of $30,000 per year. According to ABC News, degree holders here in Australia will earn $300,000 more than non-graduates over their lifetime. With such statistics, one cannot help to but ask, how much does a degree contribute to success and ability in an individual’s career?

Degree vs no degree

In my 30+ years working in the executive search space helping large organisations find exceptional talent to hire, I have been asked numerous times by clients and as well as candidates how much having a university degree contributes to an individual’s ability to perform in their role. There’s no doubt that the benefits of completing a degree are unparalleled with not obtaining a degree, but we also know success stories from people without a degree who have prospered in their careers and ventures. Sir Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Michael Dell (founder of Dell Computers), Rachel Ray (Cooking TV show host) are all examples of successful professionals who don’t hold university degrees. In fact some of them were even associated with poor performance in their formative years. Sir Richard Branson, for example, was dyslexic and performed poorly academically although he encourages education as a crucial aspect of personal development.

Look, there is data supporting both sides of the coin, but I would like to share my opinion on whether degrees actually do determine success.

Let’s be clear. Academic degrees do not necessarily guarantee success, but improve the chances of achievement. The degree is not only about the certificate attained, but knowledge and experiences learned at university improve one’s reasoning capacities. In my opinion, degrees contribute to success if you are looking for a career being employed by others and can be a determining factor when an executive wants to decide whether to hire someone with or without a degree. A lot of careers and employers require degrees: It’s a no-brainer that doctors need to have achieved a certain level of higher education; you cannot be hired as a financial controller of a company if you do not have the qualifications and financial knowledge and skills required.

Skills that degree-holders bring to the table

Besides the attained certificate, attending a university equips potential new hires in your business with essential attributes. At university, one learns to think critically and with an open mind. You learn about working with others and hone your interpersonal skills in a fast-paced environment; all skills that become applicable later in one’s professional life. Degree holders generally have a higher reasoning ability as well. which can be critical in a management environment in high-stress, fast-paced environments such as hospitals. University degree holders can also exhibit more confidence to voice opinions especially in an area that they have studied. Amongst other benefits, knowing that someone you have hired has a degree under their belt is like a vetting process and a safety cushion, whereby as a CEO or an executive looking to build a team, you know you are selecting talent above a certain expected standard.

Learning by doing

There are successful businessmen who have prospered in the business world with no degree. At the same time, there are those who credit their success in business to their formal education. One may ask, is a degree relevant when you are a businessperson? On a personal note, I wasn’t in a position to continue high school past year 10, and certainly did not have the financial support in those days to even consider going to university. Regardless, I was raised with a very strong work ethic and I’ve always maintained a “glass half full” attitude to life. I progressed my career from secretarial skills to sales and marketing skills, which led me to the recruitment industry where I’m still enjoying what I do 30 years on. A strong focus on customer service, whether it be my client or candidates combined with a positive attitude are what I attribute my success to. I’ve given myself QBE qualifications, i.e. Qualified By Experience. I am honored to have placed many people like myself — without degrees — in roles where they have achieved extraordinary success. It’s about having the will to succeed and staying positive and focused.

Although it’s certainly not a ‘knockout’ scenario, the way I see it is it takes ambition, focus and strength of character perhaps an extraordinary upbringing and set of circumstances to be successful without a degree. As mentioned earlier, a degree is important in a lot of ways, but there are ambitious people who succeed without a degree. However, using examples such as Bill Gates and Sir Richard Branson as a basis of how valid or not a degree is can be misleading. These people are outliers and possess various talents, opportunities and experiences that led to their success. For example, in his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell discusses how opportunity contributed to Bill Gates’ success. He had unlimited access to computers and learned to code while he was a teenager way before other people had seen computers. This unique opportunity gave him a head start in software development before others started to catch on. Bill Gates acknowledges that he was lucky and encourages that a degree gives a surer path to success, rewarding jobs, higher incomes and healthier lives, and we can almost be certain that this affects his hiring decisions as well.


The ratio between “being good in school/ university and being good on the job” is 0%. Does it make a difference to have studied or not? Yes. Should candidates without a degree be eliminated? No. I therefore encourage clients looking to fill executive positions to consider a degree as an important factor in their decision-making, however it is also wise not to purely base the decision on this. Culture fit and the right attitude are paramount.

This article originally appeared on the Kennedy Executive website.