Do employers still value college degrees?

Do employers still value college degrees?

According to a recent survey of 500 U.S. recruiters and hiring managers across ten industry sectors, the answer is a resounding yes. One hundred percent of recruiters believe that candidates with a college degree have more skills than those without a degree. And although employers report that on average only 35 percent of entry-level, salaried jobs require a degree, recruiters look for them.

“College degrees are the default,” explained Sue Keith, managing partner, Ceres Talent, a marketing staffing agency. “The market expects them, and they indicate that a candidate is interested in pursuing a professional career.”

Alan Henshaw, senior recruiting manager, AWS engineering, agreed that degrees are valuable. “It’s tough for software engineers who don’t come from a classically trained, computer science degree background to succeed. The degree gives them skills that they can build on top of and ties everything together for them. People who don’t have a degree know how to do things but don’t understand why decisions are made.”

But while degrees still have value, employers don’t feel that today’s educational programs teach all the skills candidates need to succeed. There is a skills gap, especially around soft skills like communication which 40 percent of recruiters say entry-level job candidates lack. 

“Soft skills are super important,” Henshaw explained. “I don’t think universities teach them, so they are something you learn on the job.”  

Keith concurred, “The best way to acquire soft skills is to learn from the people around you.” 

Another soft skill, accountability, is sought by 30 percent of recruiters filling entry-level positions. According to Henshaw, “Junior engineers don’t understand how corporate environments work–they miss deadlines, are late, and don’t act like professionals.” 

As machines advance to take on more task-based work, jobs of the future will depend on a mastery of soft skills. Forward-thinking colleges and universities are beginning to integrate these transferable skills, especially communication and critical-thinking skills, into their traditional curriculum to ensure their students are prepared for the workplace when they graduate. 

What’s the lifetime of a degree? 

It’s shorter than you think. On average, employers believe that students should participate in further educational programs or credentialing within two years of completing their current program. 

Why? Shelby Olson, senior consultant, executive and career coach, Right Management, who works with mid- and senior- level employees looking to transition into new opportunities, explained that today’s jobs are continually evolving, and employees need to invest in their own development to remain relevant in the workplace. 

“Employers of the future are going to look at what skills they need at that time,” she said. “Unless employees continue to update the competencies their employers need, their job security will be compromised.” 

And a one-time certification is not enough. To stay competitive, employees need to become lifelong learners. Almost 40 percent of employers think that workers need to complete additional educational programs or certifications more than once a year to stay relevant. 

“I’m hard pressed to think of an industry that doesn’t require continual training,” Olson remarked. “It’s necessary to remain relevant, regardless of industry or position level. Learnability is an essential piece in being able to continue your career.” 

The trend towards combining degrees and credentials 


Hear Alex Bellow, a student at Delgado Community College, explain why he is pursuing both a college degree and credentials, how they will benefit his career, and the importance of lifelong learning.

The demand for additional educational programs continues to grow. In a survey of students, 95 percent of students in a degree program said that obtaining a credential on top of their degree will make them more specialized in their field and nearly half of the students agreed that credentials are essential to meeting their career goals. 

Employers also project an increased role for credentials. In the next five years, 85 percent of employers believe more candidates applying for jobs at their organization will have credentials in addition to a college degree. And an overwhelming majority of employers (97 percent) say credentials will be important in their company’s consideration of whether to hire someone over a candidate without credentials. 

“Badging and credentialing are going to be differentiators in the future across most sectors,” Olson stated. “They are indicators of a proven level of proficiency.”  

Students and recruiters agree that a blend of post-secondary degree and credentials provides a solution to the current skills gap. This presents an opportunity for higher education institutions to explore new business models, combining degrees and certifications in accessible online formats, that will support lifelong learning opportunities for their students and alumni.

Meet the authors
Katie Lynch-Holmes
Katie Lynch-Holmes
Principal Strategic Consultant, Ellucian

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