I got a lot of letters from readers irate over a column I wrote last month about how individuals without college degrees could still make it in the work world and even thrive.
Many of you were upset that I would even suggest that being without a college diploma isn’t a horrible thing. But just to be clear, I never suggested that people should bypass a four-year degree.
One reader, who calls himself Mr. X, called my article “moronic.” His take summed up what some readers were thinking:
"You know quite well, your article promoting the lack of going to college was nonsense. There's plenty of potholes the lack-of-college-degrees can fill in the roads, but are they the ones who don't want to do that job and leave it for the illegal aliens, or 'end up in Iraq,' like John Kerry said? So I suggest, darling, you go back to journalism school. Your article shows a severe lack of educational understanding."
While I don’t enjoy being insulted, Mr. X did make some good points. There’s no way around it, a college degree can make your career life easier. But for those without the fancy diploma, success at work is still attainable.
That said, I’m including some letters from readers who shared their difficult experiences without diplomas, and how they came to realize the only way to advance in their fields was through higher education.
A little over 16 years ago (just before I turned 40) I was in pretty much the same boat as the IT specialist you quote. I had the knowledge and experience to get the job done but couldn’t get past the HR department. No degree, and into the reject pile would go my application. Unfortunately, knowing who the hiring manager is doesn’t help because often their hands are tied with all applicants having to pass muster through HR. On top of the difficulties in trying to find new work, in the environment I was in most meetings would begin with self-introductions that inevitably included, "I got my undergraduate degree from Bla Bla University and my master's at Big Time University."
I finally got tired of it and went back to school. Most large cities have a legitimate university that is set up for adult learners offering a full curriculum of courses during the evening hours. A side benefit to obtaining a degree was that my children saw daddy doing homework so they didn’t whine so much about having to do theirs.
After I obtained my bachelor degree I attended graduate school and, of course, would not have been admitted without the undergraduate degree.
When I moved on from working at Bell Labs (I was a consultant not an employee) I'm fairly certain that I would not have been interviewed for the one position I was offered had I not had a degree.
I wound up at a startup company that did more selling of business plans than actual product, and one critical factor in them being able to sell themselves was the education level of their employees. Eventually, we were acquired by Microsoft and I'm pretty sure that part of the offer I received was related to having a degree.
— Terry Bullington, Woodinville, Wash.
(MSNBC.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)
Jay McGee of Arlington, Texas, agreed with my article but is planning on going back to school anyway.
You are the second person I have heard refer to any such “no-higher-education glass ceiling.” I enjoyed your article particularly because I have been referring to its existence for quite some time.
I think it all started when a recruiter inside my own company told me that she couldn't even put my name forward to the hiring manager because I didn't have a degree. “It's a compliance issue,” she said, “and we've gotten in trouble for doing it in the past.” This despite, at that time, my having 10 years' experience in the banking industry and this being a job that I knew that I could do.
After this experience, I have come to think that there is no way for me to ever make a decent salary, or obtain the advancement that I'm looking for without a degree. Or without going into sales, which is a different animal entirely and does not care if your education did not extend past second grade. And, as at least one person quoted in your article indicated, a degree is even more essential if you're in my current position. I was laid off after 10 years with the company, and the world of job searching has changed dramatically in that time.
And so I will complete my education at some point.
— Jay McGee, Arlington, Texas
And it’s never too early to start thinking about whether a college degree should be in your future.
I just read your article entitled "No college degree? First get in the door," and it made me want to ask you about us: people that are graduating from high school and deciding between a four-year college or a starting at a two-year community college. I have done some research into the matter, seen a lot of pros and cons, but NOTHING on what sort of first jobs one could expect from an associate's degree, just all bachelor's.
Seeing that an ideal plan would be to take two years, find an entry level position, save up some money, and then go after the four-year degree, what are some of your suggestions/comments for people like me who have some difficult decisions to make in the upcoming months, whether or not we have scholarships?
— J.S., Ypsilanti, Mich.
My take is that J.S. needs to find a way to go to a four-year college at night and work during the day or vice versa.
Even though people can do well and prosper with no college degree I am inclined to think it would be easier to follow your career dreams with a degree in your pocket.
If you just can't afford to start a four-year degree right now then finding an entry-level job in a field you think you might want to pursue down the line is a great plan. Don't just get a job to pay the bills. Try to find one that will help you learn and provide you with valuable experiences.
You can also start a degree online and the costs might be a bit easier to swallow.
Bottom line, figure out exactly what your career goals are and take a realistic view of how much the lack of a degree is holding or will hold you back.
(By the way Mr. X, I never went to journalism school.)