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Does a College Degree Really Matter?

Kate Lorenz, Editor

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If college drop-outs like Bill Gates, Michael Dell, Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison and Richard Branson all run wildly successful enterprises, why is Melissa Gerry,* a mid-level manager with years of experience -- but no college degree -- having such a hard time finding a job?

Gerry joined a Fortune 100 company right out of high school starting out as a secretary and working her way up to marketing manager. Gerry performed well and was highly regarded. But when the company she worked for merged with a larger organization and moved its headquarters across the country, Gerry found herself looking for work for the first time in 15 years. Unfortunately, after months of searching, all she's been able to land are secretarial assignments. Why? Gerry believes it's because she didn't go to college.

While in the past, a college degree may have been optional, these days it seems to have become the minimum requirement for getting a good job and succeeding in the workforce.

Jeff Blass,* a 40-year-old mid-level manager at a major food company, believes his lack of degree has stalled his advancement opportunities. "It didn't keep me from moving out of the mailroom," he says. "However, it seems to be holding me back now."

Nicole McMillen, executive director for Pre-Paid Legal Services, left college to get married and start a family and just recently entered the workforce. Ostensibly, McMillen would have had several strikes against her: no degree, no experience and a late start to boot! Yet on the contrary, McMillen says she had no trouble finding work -- or getting promoted. "I suppose it depends on the type of position you're looking for," says McMillen, who represents her firm to large corporations and other employers. "For me, it's all been about performance and results."

No one disputes that a college degree opens doors.

"Most college degrees don't necessarily qualify the graduate for anything," says Charles Murray, co-author of "The Bell Curve," a book which explores the role of intelligence in American life. Murray contends that a college education need be no more important for most white collar professions as it is for, say, a basketball player. "Walk into Microsoft or Google with evidence that you're a brilliant hacker, and the job interviewer is not going to fret if you lack a college transcript," Murray says. Murray predicts that providing an employer with evidence that you are good at something without the benefit of a college degree is become more acceptable as companies become more sophisticated about what it takes to do the job and what a college education actually provides.

For example: Terry Jones, CEO of Travelocity, was a history major at Denison University; Murry Gerber, President and CEO of Equitable Resources, was a geology major at Augustana College; Kay Krill, CEO of Ann Taylor, majored in psychology at Agnes Scott College, while Anne Sweeney, president of Disney-ABC Television Group was an education major at the University of Rochelle. Then there are CEOs like Carly Fiorina (formerly of Hewlett Packard) who majored in medieval history and philosophy and Michael Eisner (formerly of Disney) who majored in English and never took a single business course.

Or as McMillen puts it, "I've found that knowing and believing in your abilities, presenting yourself in an articulate, polished manner, and making an effort to connect with others can overcome -- and even make the interviewer overlook -- that missing credential at the bottom of your resume."

*Last names changed.

Last Updated: 11/05/2010 - 4:26 PM

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