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

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