Despite interest, neither students nor employers favor skills over a college degree

Even though 72% of employers say a college degree is an unreliable measure of assessing a potential candidate, the majority still prefer to hire those who have one.

“Neither employers nor students really understand the field of options that are available and how to evaluate them,” says Joel Vargas, vice president of programs at Jobs for the Future, whose mission is to ensure equitable advancement in the American workforce and education systems.

The value of a college degree may be in the eye of the beholder, but even without knowing how prospective employers view its importance, many students are questioning whether college is worth the cost of tuition. Public Agenda released a report last month addressing Americans’ views on higher education, and the results were alarming. Only 49% of respondents think the economic benefits of a college degree outweigh tuition costs.

One of the biggest influences on a student’s decision to go to college is whether it will help them secure a job. Many young adults view the traditional postsecondary education pathway as the only way to achieve their career goals, according to Vargas.

But plenty of non-degree pathways come with their own benefits, such as the opportunity to enter the workforce and experience a job while having the flexibility to switch to a different path if they decide they’d rather do something else.

A new report released in collaboration with American Student Assistance and JFF today highlights Gen Z students’ and employers’ views on the pathways to education and how they are shifting.

Both students and employers value the skills obtained through non-degree pathways and programs, but both groups also say they need better guidance to help understand the range of options and their quality. “Even the employers sort of said that at the end of the day it takes a lot of time to unpack what this certificate means, or what this person can do as a result of having completed this program,” says Vargas.

School guidance counselors also need to do more to help guide students to a career path that aligns with their interests without defaulting to the traditional postsecondary route.

“The ratios are really not favorable for students who need the information and guidance that they do to connect to career pathways that align with their interests and skills,” says Vargas. “A lot of that guidance counseling has been really pointed towards, ‘Ok, well what do you need to do to prepare for college?'”

Primary findings

The report suggests that both Gen Z students and employers highly value the importance of skills for obtaining a successful career. However, both groups agree that there are a lot of risks involved. As Vargas puts it, “Ambivalence is a great way to summarize what we found.”

Most students believe that employers prefer potential candidates who have a college degree over those who don’t. Similarly, the majority of employers say they prefer to hire those with a degree because it’s a more reliable option.

Other key findings:

  • 74% of Gen Z students want to obtain skills that will help guide them to a decent job. 81% of employers say they should start looking at skills rather than degrees. 68% of employers want to hire from non-degree pathways.
  • 52% of employers still hire those with a degree, although 72% say they don’t believe a college degree is a reliable measure in determining a candidate’s skill set. 37% of Gen Z students believe employers prefer candidates with a college degree.
  • 65% of Gen Z students fear the risk of choosing the wrong non-degree pathway. 80% of employers want to receive more insight into how non-degree pathways differ from the traditional post-secondary choice.

“A lot of the pathways that we’re taking a look at give you the best of both worlds,” says Vargas. “You should be able to potentially enter the labor market sooner, not have to forgo so many wages or take on so much debt. They get to experience what they might be interested in as a career, including if they want to change their mind.”

Vargas emphasizes a need to move away from the monopoly of the college degree and start inviting non-traditional methods into the equation. “We have to get away from the one and only pathway being the BA pathway,” he says. “Anytime you create a singular vision of one path to any destination, it’s never a good idea. Especially when you’re dealing with a population that’s diverse. The pandemic revealed a lot of different needs.”

More from UB: How do higher ed employees feel about their jobs? Evidently, not so great

Micah Ward
Micah Ward
Micah Ward is a University Business staff writer. He recently earned his master’s degree in Journalism at the University of Alabama. He spent his time during graduate school working on his master’s thesis. He’s also a self-taught guitarist who loves playing folk-style music.

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