The Purpose of a College Degree

Someone was telling me about an employee issue they were having recently.  During the conversation, they said, “This person is smart.  They have a college degree.”

I’m not trying to offend anyone here, but I don’t know that I automatically equate having a college degree and being smart.  That’s because I know plenty of smart people who don’t have college degrees.

You know me, so I had to look up the definition of smart.  It’s defined as showing mental alertness and calculation and resourcefulness.  Makes sense.  And it explains why a person doesn’t need a college degree to be smart.

And I guess this would mean it’s possible that going to college could help you to become smart.  The whole college experience can teach you alertness and resourcefulness.  Anyone who has gone through the add/drop process would concur.  ha.ha.

But this also opens up the possibility that you could have a college degree and not be smart.

What got me thinking about this conversation was the Harvard Business Review post debating if entrepreneurs need a college degree.  While on one hand, I think “yes” it would be valuable; then I challenge myself to answer “why exactly would it be valuable?”

Granted, there are occupations that you need to receive additional education in order to perform.  Like a doctor.  If I were talking to a high school student who wanted to be a doctor about going to college, the answer is “you have to go to college to learn how to do [insert name of surgical procedure here].

But what about occupations that aren’t like doctors? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.  What’s the purpose of a college degree?

Image courtesy of Noel Foster


  1. says

    I equate a college degree with critical thinking and I see the exposure to ideas, thoughts and people outside of your regulars as so valuable. The degree will get you noticed with me but the person behind the degree is expected to deliver in the interview and on the job as well as the next person.

  2. says

    Having a degree is in one way a certificate that you know about critical thinking (as Lisa already pointed out). It is also a certificate that you are able to absorb information/knowledge and that you can find information when searching for it. Having said that, there is no guarantee that you can’t do that without a college degree. You just have to prove it by some other means.
    When you get to your second or third job you probably have proven it by your track record. So the degree is a great way to get you your first job.

    Then of course it all depends on who you are and what line of business you are in. I am an old self thought developer that gradually turned into product management. Would I have benefited from a degree? Most probably. Did I get by well without one? Yes I think so.

    With experience and hard work you get a track record and at some point that track record is much more important than any degrees you might have. The hard part is just to get to that point without the degree.

  3. says

    College degrees are the new high school diplomas. I don’t think people are necessarily smart from going to college. Most aren’t. Give me someone who loves what he or she does. The best programmers often didn’t learn how to do it in college…they learned in their basement.

  4. says

    I like the points on critical thinking and would add that college is where you learn the fundamentals in your field. Unless you understand the theory behind the fundamentals of HR systems like: compensation system design, selection systems, and performance management, it would be difficult to know where to start when creating something for your organization or to critically review the benefits of a new concept.

    Keep up the great work Sharlyn!

  5. says

    If there were required courses in emotional intelligence, then the college degree would be worth it’s weight in gold. Seriously though, the reality is that the unemployment rate for those with only a high school diploma or less is at 16%, while those with a bachelor’s or higher have an unemployment rate of 8%. Companies are fixated with intellect and education as a combo-platter and reward for that as well, but I would hire with or without a degree — it’s context-dependent on what they would be doing day to day.

  6. says

    I once offended a young HR Manager who was leaving for another job and trying to find a replacement for his position. Unintentionally, of course. He had previously worked as a recruiter before being hired as the HRM. He did have a college degree but overall had only about three years experience overall in the field. He called me and asked me to recommend some of my graduating seniors for his job. I told him I would never recommend a recent college graduate for a HRM position. Perhaps an HR Assistant or Coordinator perhaps but not a college grad. It’s just not enough to turn over the risk the company has let alone all the other details and responsibilities to a person who may have had one class in HR. While I recall being full of confidence as a fresh college grad, I realize now how little I really did know back then. Even after 20 years in HR there is still much to learn.

  7. I, Anonymous says

    Right on, Frank.

    I do not believe college degrees are any indication of any sort of intelligence. I do believe that obtaining a degree can be an excercise in persistence.

    While the purposes of attending college (and not getting the degree itself) are possibly many – I believe the main purpose is to provide a cocoon while for young folks while they dip their toes into the real world and actually DO ‘wise up’ about others and themselves.

    Ask anyone who is over 30 and attending college so they can get that paper punch card. Ask anyone over 50 who opted out and managed to nonetheless stumble into a bonafide career.

    The world is full of famous folks who dropped out and did alright. Ask Bill Gates. I’ll happily hire a life long learner who has at least a passing interest in the business ANY day of the week over someone who simply has the sheepskin.

  8. says

    I agree with most of the comments that just having a college degree does not necessarily indicate smartness or intelligence. It may just indicate that the person had the ability to show up most days for 4 (or more) years and absorb what was being dished out. For the most part to find out intelligence would require talking to or interviewing said individual to test whether or not there is a spark behind the eyes.

  9. says

    Obtaining a college degree instills commitment, follow-through and an inherent sense of accomplishment. The degree is not about what you know, but rather always knowing you have the skills to figure anything out, the strength and patience to persevere, and the discipline needed to make solutions happen.

    Great post, as ALWAYS!!!!

  10. says

    Well, I’ve certainly worked with enough individuals who had college degrees and were not smart to know that smart and college don’t always come in the same package. This is a rare occurrence but does happen. On the other hand, there are individuals (managers, leaders, individual contributors and entrepreneurs) who do not have degrees who are truly brilliant in their chosen field. My 16 year old argues that a college degree isn’t necessary for his success. While he may be right, it certainly increases his odds and will provide him with some basic technical skills, expose him to diversity in people, cultures and thoughts. College helps people to become more well rounded, although not everyone needs these classes and sheepskin affirmation to be well rounded. But they are the exception.

  11. Jason says

    There is book smart and then there is street smart, I wonder which of them was being referred to in that comment. I agree that having a college degree does not imply that someone is smart, it simply implies that one has acquired the resource to do something in a smart manner.

    What about the college graduate with the bare minimum GPA? Could not be book smart! How about the college dropout who sets up his own billion dollar company? Too smart and hence successful.

  12. says

    Thank you everyone for your comments and insight. This is a really interesting conversation.

    I totally agree that college can teach critical thinking, emotional intelligence, and self-confidence. But are college students learning those qualities by accident or by design? As Jason mentioned, if the student isn’t focused on the learning, they can still get a degree without a high GPA and not have gleaned the qualities mentioned.

    It would be interesting to hear the conversations happening at colleges today about curriculum design and if these qualities mentioned are being discussed. I’m always wondering how business and education can work together to prepare our future workforce.

  13. Rachael says

    I remember my lecturer at a very well known London university saying to me one morning ‘this isn’t about you learning, this is about us getting funds for research’.

    He was right, he wanted me to take in what he wanted me to know, regurgitate that at the right moment (ie my exam) and then get the hell out of his way. I am concerned that this is perhaps the norm.

    I am still amazed by college graduates who beam at me when they regurgitate the front page of our website when I ask them about my company. I already knew they could read – I would like to know what they are prepared to do with the information.

    So it comes down to individuals. If you have a degree, you are able to structure a written argument to a certain extent. You understand deadlines (hopefully) and you know how to plan. After that, I am far more interested in practical experience.

  14. says

    Thanks for sharing Rachael. I know that research is important. In listening to your story I couldn’t help but wonder when the professor would realize that the people who would eventually fund and take over his research were the exact same people he was teaching. Ironic, eh?

  15. says

    Having a college degree does not necessarily mean that the person is exquisitely smart. But having a degree means that the person has studied about field of work they want. It is true that some jobs may or may not require a college degree. There are some who are college dropouts, but are successful businessmen. Having a college degree may be a plus when applying for a job, but it is hard work that would get you far in your field.
    Maria Payroll recently posted..Payrolling en buitenlandse medewerkers

  16. says

    Thanks for the comment Maria. Your point about experience is spot on. Being able to demonstrate what a person learned in college is what will really set someone apart.

  17. says

    I want add few words about people attitude….

    In countless occasions i found people acting “holier than thou” just because they have a piece of paper.

    When there is a debate about something and it gets “hot” i often here “i at least have some education and you?? , what do you know”

    Ha ! Like having a degree automatically makes a person an authority in everything ?

    Said that the only thing that matter are skills . You can be self-learned genius . If you prove your skills you will be hired even with primary school docs . A degree is just a push.
    Monica recently posted..Online degree perception

  18. Semi Anti-college says

    I would be for college if it were free but because it is not and has so much control over our societies I have issues with it and I personally feel that college isn’t necessary for everyone. I find it to be for those you are not self-motivated to learn new things, those who are clueless about whats going on around them, a networking platform, and for status. Yes, if you want to become a doctor, scientist, lawyer, etc college is your route because there are levels and rules that you must follow in certain professions. But at the end of the day, you can be an apprentice and learn all of these things that college is prepping you for plus gain hands-on experience.

    I truly think that college is a system that the societies have created to control the masses. Those with a degree have control over those without one. The concept of college and what it does for you is great but nowadays the piece of paper doesn’t signify experience. It’s an extremely expensive stepping stone that society is using against us. And all of this training for perhaps an extra $15,000-$20,000 a year? Don’t forget taxes, loans, bills, and if the time you put in is proportionately equivalent to your hourly wage. You can be the dumbest person in the world, have a college degree, and get that interview over someone else that is more qualified and passionate about their work.

    Obama is telling everyone to go to school. Great, go to school if you want to. To me, a college degree is just a paper stating that you’ve learned about the thoughts and ideas of those before you, whether it be true or false. It’s designed to mold you into whatever format the educational system wants you to be in. Lastly, college just perpetuates the ideas of those in control and reinforces its value, regardless of if it works or not.

  19. Semi Anti-college says

    And a college degree doesn’t mean that you’ve gotten the proper education in your field either. Because of competition, not ever student gets the same level of education. College = money (and not necessarily for you)

  20. says

    @Semi Anti-College I do agree with you that college isn’t for everyone. And there are excellent jobs available to individuals without degrees. My father didn’t have a college education and made an honest living. Mike Rowe, the star of TV’s “Dirty Jobs” talks about skilled jobs on his site, Mike Rowe Works.

    But that being said, I wouldn’t say that college is a waste of time. We need higher education as much as we need trade schools. They are both important. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  21. Cy Cabell says

    I have read through many of these comments and I can’t help but think many of those who are proponents of a college degree already have one. Let me first say that I am a HUGE supporter of education (college or otherwise)! What I cannot support however, is the singular emphasis on a college degree as a qualifier. Would any organization dismiss Steve Jobs as a viable employment for his lack of a college degree? Yet the iconic CEO not only does not have a degree, but dropped out of college–an act often associated with failure. The emphasis on a college degree has reached a ludicrous level for me in that I was recently informed that my employer now insists that I get a college degree in order to be eligible for a promotion. I have 25 years of experience in my career field and 7 years on the job with my employer. They did not tell what degree they want me to have, only that I get one. I don’t understand the point? I spend upwards of 100 hours per year on continuing education, to say nothing of undocumented time of articles, white papers, books and seminars. So what exactly would my employer gain from degree? In turn, it feels a little like blackmale, because I now have to spend between $15K-$30K to get a degree, that covers what I already know, so that I can be qualified for a position I’ve been in for the last 4 years. Does this sound crazy to anyone else? What I think is truly hypocritical of most employers is that while they demand that candidates must possess a 4-yr degree, the primary applicant qualification is actual work experience–not a degree. If a worker with a degree in the given field and 5 years of experience in an outside field compared to an applicant with a degree in an outside field with has 20 years of in-field experience, which is going to receive greater consideration? Which begs the question, what set the two apart, the in-field degree or the in-field experience? And if it is agreed that it is the in-field experience, why again are we demanding that candidates have a college degree?

  22. says

    My comment is more of a question and slightly off topic… My son just received notice that he has been accepted to Cornell and nominated to be a Tanner Dean’s Scholar, a very honorable distinction which gives him the opportunity to meet very influential people and begin research projects with seniors during his freshman year, etc. The hesitation of course, is the cost of tuition. He received a grant for slightly over half (tuition is 60,000). I have to laugh because it is ludicrous to think that our household just has $29,000 each year to hand over to a college. Laughable! So, my question is directed to the ones who DID go to an IVY league school and had to incur this amount of debt. Not to the students who got a free ride or who’s parents had the money to pay. Was the experience there and the jobs you were able to land after graduation worth the incredible amount of debt? I find that graduates who did not rack up loans say vehemently, “Yes, worth every penny!” and graduates who turned down the school & went elsewhere say they absolutely made the right choice. However, I’d like to hear from grads who actually bit the bullet, attended and graduated with over 120.000 to pay back. Was it worth it? And as an employer, how apt are you to hire an Ivy league grad vs a state University and would your pay offer be higher for the higher ranked university? Any feedback is appreciated!