Something in Bentley’s PreparedU study caught my eye: About a third of business executives and recruiters surveyed disagreed that a college degree is a sign that someone is ready for the workforce.
Why not? As someone who has achieved a certain level of success without benefit of a college education, I have some thoughts to share. But let’s first address why we should be concerned about the work force preparation, not only the 30 percent of college-educated millennials, but also those 70 percent without a university degree.
It’s no secret that, as the cost of higher education climbs far faster than the rate of inflation, many question whether the traditional model for higher education in America will survive for all but the elite. Perhaps the traditional model will be disrupted and transformed by distance learning options at lower cost with more flexibility.
Another concern to recent graduates and policy makers, including Fed Chair Janet Yellen, is the current unemployment and underemployment data, as well as the lackluster job-creation statistics. This is further supported by Economic Policy Institute’s (EPI) report noting that 8.5 percent of recent college grads are unemployed and 16.8 percent are underemployed.
Still, nearly 75 percent of those surveyed by Bentley said that a college education provides students with the skills needed to pursue their first job, career, a passion, or contribute to society. But how are textbook studies developed into applicable skills when 62 percent of higher education influentials and 59 percent of business decision makers in the Bentley survey gave universities a C or lower grade for preparing recent college graduates for their first jobs?
While the PreparedU Project focuses primarily on “preparedness” among college-educated millennials, it’s also important to acknowledge the plight of those without a traditional four-year university degree. That, at least in part, is why I found this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education especially illustrative — and poignant — in terms of explaining the dilemma of whether or not to go to college. That said, great success is achievable sans the coveted college degree — Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, Michael Dell and Larry Ellison are some notable names.
Despite the challenges facing higher education, and those who have trouble accessing it, students are still flocking to college, and graduation rates have never been higher. According to the Census Bureau, 30.4 percent of people over age 25 nationally hold at least a bachelor’s degree, and 10.9 percent hold a graduate degree, up from 26.2 percent and 8.7 percent only 10 years ago. This matters, because numerous studies, including the recent Pew Foundation Report, also confirm that college graduates earn significantly more over the course of their lifetimes.
Nonetheless, it’s equally important to point out that the lack of a college degree doesn’t mean a rewarding career isn’t possible. Indeed, the PreparedU study respondents gave technical and vocational schools nearly the same level of endorsement as they give private higher education in terms of preparing students for their first jobs.
Of course, landing a great job with or without a college degree takes perseverance and lots of self-education along the way.
Having walked the path as a female non-college graduate, I have been blessed with a fulfilling career and am currently at an early-stage venture capital fund that invests in exceptional entrepreneurs with transformative ideas and big dreams. If given the opportunity, I would advise other young women who want to achieve great things — and who can achieve great things — with or without a college degree, to focus on the following five areas:
- Confidence: It’s the core of everything, and it dictates how you communicate, behave and interact with others. It’s especially critical when interacting with executives. You can build this critical confidence by focusing on:
- Initiative and Tenacity: Taking initiative opens up doors, responsibilities and experience, but having the tenacity to execute to completion is more important. These two traits allow others to see your strength and character, and that builds trust.
- Adaptability and Common Sense: The ability to adapt is important, especially in today’s workplace when anything and everything can change so quickly, including management, structure, policy, corporate direction and technology. Common sense, sadly, is all too rare these days because of blind adherence to bureaucratic dictates, over-thinking, over-strategizing, or a failure to grasp and act on the big picture.
- Professionalism: How you conduct yourself will shape your image — both inside and outside the organization; and the impression you make can enhance or detract your career advancement or other opportunities.
- Desire to Learn and Expand Skillset, Knowledge and Experience: Be a sponge. To put it simply, advancement doesn’t happen — especially if you lack a college degree — by standing still. Get moving. The great journey awaits.
Gloria Hui is director of operations for Blumberg Capital, an early-stage venture capital firm that specializes in leading seed and Series A rounds in syndication with angels, venture capital firms and strategic investors. The firm is headquartered in San Francisco with team members and advisers in Tel Aviv and New York.