Is the Value of Education Credentials Changing?

E.C. Power
Posted by in Human Resources

Most people who grew up with Baby Boomer or even GenX parents were taught the only way to get a good job is by going to college. As a result Millennials, more than any other generation, are currently attending or have attended college. Ipso facto, Millennials should be more hirable, earning higher wages, and have the lowest unemployment rate in decades.


The unfortunate reality, however, is that Millennials have the highest unemployment rate and largest debts. College-educated Millennials are entering the workforce with an average of $30,000 in student loan debt. This is nearly 50% greater than the graduates of the previous generation. And what’s worse, they have a harder time finding employment. 44% of college graduates currently in their 20s are working in low-paying jobs with no room for advancement. Adding that to the number of unemployed, and we see that more than half of degree-holding Millennials are unemployed or working in positions that do not require degrees.


And then along came COVID-19. In addition to the threat to public health, the nation’s workforce and education system have been taking hard hits. Heading into the typical start of the school year, colleges have reported a 4% decrease in financial aid applications. With unemployment at its highest since the Great Depression, making tuition payments virtually impossible for many families, students will likely be postponing education in favor of supplemental income.


This doesn’t bode well for the workforce. Just three years ago, college completion rates across the country were little more than half of eligible college students. Nearly 1 in 3 dropped out altogether. Though more recent years have seen a slight uptick in those figures, the implications of COVID-19 could essentially decimate those figures.


Some 36 million Americans currently have some college education but do not hold a degree. That’s 1 in 4 US workers. A third of the labor force has only high school diplomas. Though the number of degreed, work-eligible Americans has been rising, the current educational setbacks could trigger some far-reaching consequences. Thus, forcing employers to place even greater value on experience versus education.


Pre-pandemic, nearly half of employers reported that college graduates make up only 20% of new hires. About a third of employers require a bachelor’s degree if a position advertised for one but the majority of employers are open to considering non-degreed candidates who have work experience or who are simply a good fit for the company. In fact, in a survey by Nexxt, 96% of HR pros said they value experience over education level.


So where does that leave the millions of students actively pursuing degrees? The number one answer is - get an internship! Hiring managers overwhelming say that they weigh the hands-on experience of an internship over academic success, namely G.P.A. and major. This is especially true for those pursuing positions in the Media/Communications, Science/Technology, or Services/Retail industries. HR representatives and managers in these fields value experience in the workforce, including the abilities to adapt and to manage multiple priorities, over all other factors.


Working while earning a degree, or pursuing extracurricular/volunteer activities is another way to add shine to your resume. If you are aiming for a small business (less than 50 employees) or a startup, professional clubs, athletics, and community service ranks at the top of their lists for prospective employees’ resumes. College graduates who had an internship or worked while earning their degree are twice as likely to gain employment, but comprise only one third of college graduates entering the workforce right now. Which means that those who meet these requirements are in demand and will likely outshine otherwise equal competitors.


The Takeaway: Pursuing a Bachelor’s Degree will help young Americans to obtain gainful employment. The highest-paying jobs will likely always require such credentials. This new normal won’t last forever so there’s nothing wrong with sticking it out. But those who really want to set themselves apart will need to double-down on both education and experience to compete.



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