Is Experience Becoming More Important Than A College Degree?

Education is a serious issue in our country and something invaluable. I, myself, come from a family of teachers, professors and even a school nurse. So let me be clear that I’m in no way questioning the value and importance of education of the lower and higher levels. However, the role that a college degree is playing in today’s world has changed.

With the cost of higher education at an all time high and 85% of college seniors planning on moving back home after graduation, is a degree in certain fields really worth it? The old motto that just getting a degree showed you were responsible enough and ready for the real world because you made it through four years of classes and completed something challenging is gone. That doesn’t matter anymore. What matters is getting degrees in certain fields that require an exact knowledge that will leave you with an exact skill-set.

A degree is extremely priceless and important in law, medicine, engineering, education, science and sometimes business (amongst other exact skillset focused education). But degrees that are more price than priceless like marketing, journalism, English, history and communications are really only advantageous if it gets you a credit-earning unpaid internship.

Companies large and small are surviving off of college students who will work for credits. Which means companies don’t ever really need to hire and pay for entry level positions, because they can reward college students with credits which costs them nothing. Look at the job boards for companies such as Hearst Corporation, Fox (both of which had lawsuits filed against them for their internship practices just this year), Vice, Viacom or NBC Universal (where you can intern in ad sales and generate income for the company while you receive only credits). The New York Times has reported on this, saying, “with job openings scarce for young people, the number of unpaid internships has climbed in recent years, leading federal and state regulators to worry that more employers are illegally using such internships for free labor.” So after you’ve graduated and have some nice internships on your resume and you approach NBC Universal ready to sell and make them money while receiving a salary and commission, what would make them hire you when they could have another intern come in and do the same thing for free?

The average paid internship after college in New York is $15.60 an hour. But you’re lucky to get that. “While unpaid post-college internships have long existed in the film and nonprofit worlds, they have recently spread to fashion houses, book and magazine publishers, marketing companies, public relations firms, art galleries, talent agencies –even some law firms,” reports The New York Times. Do you see the dichotomy here? The paid internships don’t pay enough for you to live or not have at least 1-2 other jobs and limit your hours, while the unpaid internships work you five or six days a week, sometimes 8-12 hours a day. “I feel like I’ve been a professional intern since graduating with a communications degree in 2010,” says Meredith Schneider, who recently had to move back home to Kansas City from New York after a well known music company (she asked that it not be named) broke it’s internship promise of salary and benefits. “I worked from 9am until basically they said I could leave. Sometimes they would send me out to shoot until after midnight which resulted in 15-hour days. The paid internship consisted of $20 a day for transportation and food. I did this for six months before I realized nothing was going to change.”

Is a non-paid 60-hour-a-week internship, or a low-paying, low-hours, part-time internship the only options for graduates to get that experience that every company they interview with demands?

I must again reiterate that I’m talking specifically about the PR/marketing/journalism field. Publications online and off don’t need to label writing positions as “internships,” they can simply offer a submit form or post on job forums that they are accepting submissions. Opportunities like this are a great platform for up and coming writers, but you don’t need a college degree to be published. You could spend the four years you would in college creating your own voice and presence online while submitting content to publications daily. The honest fact is, you’re either a good writer or you’re not, and while journalism school can mold and develop you, and educate you, when you graduate you will be in the exact same position a 19-year-old writer who hasn’t gone to college is in; submitting content to sites in the hope they publish it so you can build your portfolio. This is especially true for online only publications and online only writers.

“Now I don’t care if people think they can write,” Dear Diary author and GIRLS show writer Lesley Arfin told Serial Optimist. “What’s the difference? If you write, you write. If you write well, you write well. So you never read Moby Dick? Cool, me either, who cares? If writing was based on how much or what we read, or old school education, I guess I wouldn’t be a “real” writer.”

There is a serious problem taking place in NYC and LA where trust fund kids can afford to do this, write and blog all day and submit their work to publications on the constant. I don’t need to name drop which publications take advantage of this, because they all do this. This takes away paying jobs from the people who can’t afford to work for free for two years and live in the parts of the country you have to live in to make it in the field you’ve worked so hard at getting in to. College graduates are now writing for multiple publications for free; examples include: anything you have bookmarked. So why spend four years and thousands upon thousands of dollars on a degree, when you could spend four years honing your skills as a writer and creating an online following?

“My overall opinion on this is based on the email I’ve gotten over and over again through the years, even before starting HelloGiggles,“ said Giggles co-founder and 2 Broke Girls story editor Molly McAleer to Serial Optimist. “How can I get my foot in the door? How can I get exposure?” For most unknowns, the answer is a platform like The Awl or HelloGiggles or Thought Catalog. That’s what gives you the chance to make a name for yourself, to have people see your work and associate your name with something they enjoyed. Then you get paid and make the decision to never not get paid.”

My question is: In the world of journalism, new media, public relations, marketing and communications, would it be more beneficial to skip college and spend four years gaining experience, taking “paid” internships and creating contacts? Or spend four years and thousands of dollars on a degree that could put you in the exact same position as others, with the only thing separating you vs. the person who opted out of college being a diploma and student loans? Employers no longer look at your GPA or your degree, they look at what you’ve done, whom you’ve done it for, and how well you did it.

I’m not leaning towards one side here. This is a question I’ve yet to find an answer to. Maybe there’s not an answer. What I do believe is, if you have the option to go to college and not have to take student loans, I would say you should do that regardless of what degree you are going for, because that route won’t plague you with debt for life, and you get the experience. I’m more hoping to open discussion, and hear people’s experiences and thoughts on this. What do you think: In today’s world, is experience more important than education?

Image via ShutterStock

  • Emily Willeman

    I completely agree with everything you’ve said. I think a question that also needs to be asked is whether or not companies would consider handing out jobs to those without/not in the process of obtaining a college degree. Would a company be as willing to hire someone for real money if they have the same experience as another but without the college experience?

    It’s definitely possible to intern without a college degree (I personally did two internships while in high school and am now on my 3rd internship after just one quarter of university). But the question isn’t whether or not you can intern without a college degree, it’s whether you can get a “real” position without a college degree.

    I think the best program would be similar to what mechanics do; a two-year program which teaches the basics of the field and then moves on to spending a lot of time getting hands-on experience as part of the degree. Clearly that won’t be happening anytime soon, but if I had had the opportunity to do that, I probably would have done so instead of heading off to a 4-year university like I did.

  • Clau Piña

    This is so true.
    Here in Mexico they passed a law (it’s being called First Job Law) which reduces specific types of taxes to the companies that hire people with no experience. Personally I haven’t met one single person that has gotten a job through this law.

  • Lisha Arino

    I agree with a lot of your points here, but here’s the thing: it’s hard to get the internships that will get you noticed without being in school. Many well-known outlets will only hire students for their internships. There’s a good chance that cost (or lack of) influences that decision, but law does too. You don’t need a college degree to intern, but by law, you either have to get paid for your work or get school credit. It’s the Dept. of Labor’s way to make sure interns don’t get screwed over (although unpaid internships for credit are pretty exploitative in my opinion). So being in school helps you get the opportunities that will teach you the skills and experiences you need to succeed, or at least get your foot through the door. It’s a flawed system for sure, but sadly, the one that’s in place right now.

  • Abigail Hobbs

    Unfortunately, I fall smack into the category which you are describing. I graduated May of this year with a BA in English. And every day of those four years I was terrified of the post-graduation slump–no job, school loans, high cost of living here in the DC metro area. So, I did all the things my counselors encouraged me to do– volunteer, get in honor’s programs, work on campus, work off campus, try to get your writing published. I even graduated top of my class.
    And I will go ahead and say it has done me no good. I’ve been looking for a job since May and while I have gotten interviews, I have received no offers. Every time the resignation letter sings the same tune “we went for a candidate with more experience.” My husband recently experienced similar rejections and was actually told “You are too young to work for us.” From what I can tell, age and experience matters more than my ability or my degree or my achievements.
    It is very distressing. I’m looking now at my options to get my Master’s in education–hoping that then academic distinctions will help me land a teaching job.
    But I have truly come to realize that it doesn’t matter what you accomplish academically — all that companies care about today is age and experience. And I’m not entirely sure how I am supposed to gain this coveted experience if no company wants to hire me. Its absurd, and I honestly have no idea how to work within the system that excludes me.

  • Lucy Bellissimo

    Speaking as an “older person” deciding to skip formal schooling or training and go straight for experience, regardless of the profession, is at best a short term, short sighted decision. We can all point to examples of people who have done okay despite having no formal training in their field or any field but they are by far the exception. In my profession I hire alot of people and there’s certainly an added value experience brings but its an ADDED value to education, not a replacement for it. In the fields of writing, formal liberal arts education teaches you how to think critically, how to work with others, how to take and understand direction, how to research and recognize proper sources and introduces you to knowledge that you would probably not seek out or even know how to seek out on your own. How could you write intelligently about a topic if you don’t know that your sources are credible? Or that the people you are talking to have got their facts correct? Or that you are using terminology correctly? In the field of writing you have great reach and influence and the worst thing is to put poorly understood and incomplete information out there. You can turn out to be someone else’s source so how do you learn to be source material if you never bother to learn from people whose profession and objective in life is purely to teach you these skills? Learning on the job is important but its learning what one organization and one person who is training you chooses to teach you. The issue of internships is a complex one. Again, as an employer myself I can tell you that a knowledgeable and committed long term employee is worth far more than an unpaid intern. Unpaid interns do low level, easy, entry level work. They’ll never be creative leaders, editors or producers. And trust me, they are often more work than they are worth. Hiring interns is a way of nurturing and finding future talent. Not all of them work out — sometimes they are the wrong fit. But you hire them hoping to find someone who will work out for you in the long run. And if not, at worst you’ve given a student the opportunity to try out their skills. In the end, NOTHING takes the place of a credible, well-earned, education no matter what it is. People with a degree progress faster and have more longer term transferable skills than people who do not. Don’t worry about the fact that most graduating students move back home for a while — there’s no shame in that and I think in this economy people are better off living simply and not over-extending themselves. The main point I want to make is get that degree, persevere, and be patient. Don’t look to the trust fund kids who seem to be flourishing because they have the cash and would do so anyway. Everyone has to find their own way and for those of us who weren’t fortunate enough to be born with a silver spoon in our mouths, education is the single best route.

    • David Dean

      Lucy, maybe you said this and I missed it, but in what industry are you an employer and hiring people? Are you in the journalism, PR, marketing, sales, fashion, publishing industry? Just curious if your situation relates to the specific areas I mentioned.

      • Lucy Bellissimo

        David, specifically related to this article I have a team that works for me who do communications work creating content on the web, in print and in social media. But in the past I’ve hired everything from accounting clerks to managers and supervisors and I can tell you that the first thing I look at on a resume is the education. And it isn’t so much that the person has specific training for the specific job — one of the best accounting people I hired in the past was a music major in university and one of the best computer systems persons I had had a degree in languages….

        • David Dean

          Thanks for clarifying! It’s always interesting to get the viewpoint of the person who hires the people and in what industries, and thanks for your thoughtful comments that help engage in good conversation, those are always the best.

  • Lee Prew

    Way back when we had things called guilds. Leaving school you would join such a guild who would train you up to a certain standard that would reflect the quality of that guilds workmanship. It almost seems like fantasy in today’s dog-eat-dog world of “You got your diploma now get lost!”. But surely something such as this could do with being brought back.

    Far from being just used for manual labour careers, which it was more traditionally accustomed with, there is no reason why nearly all old and modern professions could not implement such a system. To a lesser extent it already exists with internships within some fields, but I believe a more solid systematic approach would be of much greater benefit to all. Mostly to those who wish to pursue a certain career path but are unable to even get their foot on the first rung of the proverbial ladder.

    Something I could have done with 13 years ago having left college and finding it next to impossible to get into the career I had chosen, animation, without having any previous experience. Here I am still trying to crack that egg at 34, currently unemployed, no savings and the weight of the world on my shoulders. I’m guessing many have fallen into that same trap and many more will follow.

    How lovely it would have been for a guild to have taken me in, kept me training and working until I was ready to go forth and find my first job. Instead I was kicked into the void with a college debt (still unpaid) and have sadly found it difficult to stay afloat.

  • Aime Aguayo

    I agree completely! In a lot of fields experience gets you farther than your degree. I myself have been juggling work & going to college in order to pay for school out of fear of student loans. I have seen my friends and family, even I have competed against people who have earned their bachelors degree while im still working on mine for a job, and sadly the people who will get the job is the one w/the experience not the one w/the degree. So it has shift my focus completely.

  • Colleen Sweeney

    Oh god, I am screwed. I am currently pursuing a degree in English. I am nearly 30, live with my parents, and have no job. Suddenly, it feels very claustrophobic in here.

    • David Dean

      Don’t feel claustrophobic Colleen! I mean, we all feel that at times, but negative thinking doesn’t help, and believe me I’ve done plenty of it!

      • Colleen Sweeney

        I’ll try and remain positive.

  • Bernadette Castañeda

    With my personal experience (not saying anyone should do what I did) I went to community college to study Fashion Design (only after I studied for a year and a half at AAU which then I realized that I was going to be in debt for life so I decided to go the community way) I began with art then got into fashion I was 3/4 of the way done with the program before I began realizing with all the budget cuts and classes being canceled I wasnt going to get the best education with the bare minimum so I got a internship for a manufacturing company who has abut 4 lines they design for in house. It was unpaid but i was still in school (thanks to financial aid) I could survive. I stuck it out and by the time I was on break from school I was hired (I was happy to know this place wasnt using me as free labor) I began working full time and making good money for just starting out. I am now a junior technical designer and take a few classes here and there after work. I have learned a lot more at my job than I did at school but if it wasnt for school I would not of known the basics. For me school is a great platform to start on. I know that my way doesnt work all the time especially since I do live in LA and it is where a lot of people do take advantage of interns. I plan on learning as much as I can at my job and using it to get a “Design Assistant” job soon. So for me the experience has worked over schooling, but it wasnt a complete waste of time attending school.

  • Amalia Pantazi

    This really is a question in these times that we live in. On a practical level, work experience might be actually more important, seeing as there are things that theory and education simply can’t cover. However, and I don’t think this a romantic view on the matter or any less practical, education is a life-changing experience. It’s not just about the information and the knowledge that one gets on a certain matter/field. It’s a cultivating process that allows you to know yourself better and expand your abilities at the same time. I believe that when we learn something, we also learn something about ourselves, and not only that is incredibly important, but it also cannot be achieved through a job.

    • Catherine Westcott

      I completely agree with the above comment. The article overlooks the overall value of tertiary education in that getting a job is not the ultimate goal or reason for doing any degree (or at least I don’t believe it should or has to be). I concede that this is probably not the point of the article but I think it is a point that is almost never mentioned but definitely worth mentioning when considering the ‘value’ of any university education.
      I think that higher education is valuable beyond making a person employable and someone who has had such an education can contribute to society in unique and beneficial ways.
      I do, however think that getting a degree is dependent on individual goals and circumstance and perhaps, if getting a job is your only reason for doing a degree perhaps it’s worth considering other pathways.

  • Lucy Bellissimo

    My advice with all of this is take whatever you can. Don’t expect to leave university and get a senior exec job with friggen Google or something like that. Even with all that amazing training you are still a “newbie” and people are going to need you to prove yourself before giving you a great job with benefits and a corner office. Get whatever you can.

  • Rachel Helena

    Going off a comment made earlier by Lucy:

    I once went for a job interview at a media company who had advertised their marketing position as a “degree essential” role. Although I do not have a University degree, I applied anyway, and was accepted to interview. In the interview, the MD asked me why he should hire me when I don’t have a degree: I responded by saying that he could well hire somebody with a completely irrelevant degree to the job advertised, but in turn could miss out on a candidate who had dedicated that four years to gaining industry knowledge and experience. How would it help his marketing plans if he was to hire a Biology major?
    (As an aside here, I got this job and worked happily with the company for over twelve months…)

    Herein lies the whole debate. I think (most) companies look favourably on somebody with a ‘college degree’ simply because it shows a sense of dedication and commitment in the individual. They have managed to see something through from start to finish, mostly of their own accord.
    Can the same be said, however, for somebody who has real life experience working full time in one specific field?

    With the cost of education rising, this is becoming a very interesting discussion. Will be keen to see what is happening in ten years time. Thanks for this piece, David.

  • Ivan Remtoula

    As for me, I had my 1st job 4 months ago. I graduated in 2010, from a degree in translation (French, English & Spanish), and I spent 2 years looking for a job. I finally found one in September 2012. During my job hunt, I saw many ads that required experience (in France, we have a diploma which is called “baccalauréat”, which allows us to go to universities or do professional classes). Those job ads required a “bac +5″ (a master’s degree in a university) or more.
    I’ve never been able to work and to study at the same time, but I know many people that do so. When you graduate, and are in your 20s, you can never get such experience. It doesn’t make sense to me at all, because if you don’t have a job, you can’t get experience, and you can’t get experience if you don’t have a job.
    My father always says that you should apply for whichever job, even if it requires experience, because if the employer can’t find the perfect candidate, they’ll look at your resume and might give you a chance.
    I agree with many of you, and I hope you all will be able to find a job.
    I hope what I wrote made sense to you, and I’m sending you some positive energy. We can all make it! :-)

  • Ju Li

    I agree with what you are saying in that article and, strangely enough, the pattern you describe here, does also fits for my home country, Germany (at least in large parts).
    Ok, the educational system here is slightly different from yours in the US because you have the opportunity to do a dual apprenticeship in certain professions (school & work at the same time) and it’s hard to get a job without at least that. I did that after I graduated and have worked in that job for almost 8 years (I’m a bookseller btw). But the pay in sales is really bad even when you are trained, so I decided to go back to university to get a Bachelor’s degree cos it enables me to get a better (paid) job.
    But cutting to the chase: with all the differences in education we still got the same problem with internships as you do! When I look at my fellow students – most of them newly graduated from high school – they all have problems to find a paid internship which is btw REQUIRED to get your degree! Most of the companies seem to think it is enough to offer a “creative working atmosphere”, “taking good care of the students” and “involve them in daily work” but all the while not paying their interns. And yet they usually DEMAND that you’re doing an internship of at least 3 to 6 months. Am I the only one asking myself how a student who can’t afford to have a second or third job alongside the internship (cos it’s usually full time) should survive? Apart from the fact that you are not allowed to work that much when you are getting a student loan.
    Sadly, it is not only smaller companies pursuing that kind of “self-service mentality” , as I like to call it, but also the big players in the publishing industry who refuse to pay their interns adequately.
    If you look at it, the formula is really simple: “WORK= (ADEQUATE) PAY” Interns are not personal slaves of the company and if someone works hard he should be rewarded – simple as that. I will refuse to do an unpaid internship but I have a bit of a choice because I got the work experience that most of my fellows don’t.
    But no one should sell themselves short!

    Anyway thanks for the article! That’s a topic I have thought about a lot myself since starting university.

  • Hans Johan Svensson

    Obtaining knowledge before you really know if you need it or not is agrovating when you are young. For education to follow with changing times is equally hard.
    One might think that the best bet is to learn about as many things as you can – you can do that for the rest of your life.
    Perhaps the best education is the one you love the most – just hope that your teachers have the time and joy to make it interesting. In the end you will have to decide on your proffesion. Or just make money to make ends meet.

    I belive in education. There is so much that you´ll never know. There is also a lot that us older folkes (myself included) thinks you should know about life history and the society around you in general – avoyd our misstakes.

    The list of what you could learn is long and never ending. There will allways be new stuff to read.
    Wether all of this has anything to do with you is something that you will know after reading it. It is only when the information has reached you own mind that you will be able to think about it and ponder for your self.

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