Is a college degree necessary for everyone?

college degree necessary

So I created My College IQ primarily to help students pick majors and figure out their career direction in life. But today I was in a meeting that made me want to rename my product. We were talking about the fact that a lot of our culture assumes the need for a four-year college degree. We push kids to go to college. And yet, what we really mean is that kids need to become “credentialed” in some way for their careers. And there are so many more options for getting credentialed than just a college degree. The above chart is from the Association for Career and Technical Education and I think it’s so helpful to give us that broader picture.


That’s what we should be talking about when we’re helping students figure out next steps. What if we talked about what “credentials” they’re going to get instead of what college they’re going to?

A lot of people should not go to a four year university. It sounds wrong to say that. As a society, we pretend that university is the answer to everything. We think it’s a requirement for a great career and more money. Meanwhile, we ignore the debt conversations. We continue to reinforce blue collar/white collar divides. We continue to rank manual labor jobs as somehow less worthy than mental labor positions.

But I know for a fact that plumbers make good money.

And many people thrive when they can see the work of their hands.

And many people struggle with depression and disengagement at their fancy desk jobs.

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If you want a good philosophical look at the value of manual labor or blue collar work, you should check out Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soul Craft. For me, it was an incredible reminder of the intelligence and skill required to do jobs we often look down on. I was reminded that we often learn so much more by doing than by reading. This is him discussing our push to get everyone to go to college:

“In this there is little accommodation of the diversity of dispositions, and of the fact that some very smart people are totally ill suited both to higher education and to the kind of work you’re supposed to do once you have a degree. Further, funneling everyone into college creates certain perversities in the labor market. The sociologist of education Randall Collins describes a cycle of credential inflation that ‘could go on endlessly, until janitors need Ph.D’s and babysitters are required to hold advanced degrees in child care.’”

Cultivation of Knowledge

College and university used to be primarily about cultivation of knowledge for its own sake. That’s why you still have Art History and Philosophy degrees. These are great and even necessary areas of study, but let’s not pretend that they make it easier for you to get a good job. While I think everyone should be required to take some philosophy classes, it’s often hard to Liberal Arts students to translate their college degree into a career outside of academia. And today most colleges are selling their ability to credential students for the workforce.

So let’s be honest about what we’re trying to achieve. For some students, a liberal arts college degree is exactly what they want. It’s who they are. They thirst for knowledge, primarily of the book variety. And for others, that’s anathema. They want to be out there doing something! In the end, what we really want students to do is get a credential that will help them get a job. And that means we should be exploring every credentialing avenue, not just the four-year college degree program. Community colleges, certificates, apprenticeship programs, on-the-job certifications – these are all great paths for students to figure out the next step in their lives.

What was  your educational path? Would you go back and do something differently today? What would be your advice to a junior or senior in high school?