While reading resumes for an open position recently, an interesting thought surfaced: How long is a college degree relevant?
This question may immediately make some people feel queasy. Specifically, the people that still have huge amounts of debt many years after being awarded that coveted piece of paper at an institute of higher learning. This is a feeling exacerbated by the realization that many years later, much of the detailed knowledge imparted in those glory days of learning has faded.
Yet, we should not consider this as an argument for, or against, a college degree.
From the standpoint of an Engineering Manager, a college degree provides a great deal of value and information when reviewing resumes. The hiring process is all about guesswork and assumptions based on a very limited data set. While the inferences made during this process can be faulty sometimes, it allows us to avoid many variables in favor of other topics and items of interest.
However, you will not get hired just because you have a college degree.
When completing such a course of study, specifically in Engineering, an assumed context exists about you and your abilities. There is nothing easy in those courses and classes. Sure, you learned amazing things like how to load data into registers using assembly code or the heat capacity equations for an isobaric process from your thermodynamics class.
Years later, unless you are writing assembly code or calculating heat transfer as part of your daily job functions, then you have probably forgotten how to do those things. However-that degree states that at one point you could learn and understand those concepts. That is an important aspect of any degree.
From this, we can assert that a college degree always provides value to the holder. This value is also independent of any time factor.
Therefore, is the value of the degree weighted in a way as to be front-loaded with more value being applied the closer one is to graduation?
Should a degree that is “fresher” for an individual carry more weight than one that has gotten “stale” based on nothing more than the time that has distanced that person from the rigors and structure of academia?
It is very easy to argue both sides of this coin. One argument is that any degree or coursework cannot prepare an individual for the specific knowledge needed for a particular job or role. Someone who joins any new team will not know what we do and how we do it. Therefore, the impact of both a college degree and/or other job and life experience is a moot point regarding most of our processes and daily interactions.
In short, a college degree does not grant anyone the wisdom that comes with experience.
While discussing this topic with someone with many years of experience working as an Engineer in an automotive manufacturing setting, there was a heaping amount of criticism on the new “engineers” that were being brought into the team.
The story, as it was being told, was describing a newly degreed Engineer who had designed a part without completing a solid amount of research and forethought. Upon completing the design and relaying the part to the production floor, there was some feedback provided by the non-degreed operators. This feedback carried the weight of time and experience and called out some potential issues in the design. The young Engineer answered to the effect of: “Since I am the Engineer, you need to make it how I designed it.”
The part failed.
Unfortunately, a degree does not also imply humility nor does it impart the wisdom that comes with life experience.
If we apply the question regarding the relevancy of a college degree from a financial sense, then the answer is a resounding “yes”.
The vast majority of algorithms and metrics that exist immediately cast a person with a college degree into a higher earning class. While the arguments above illustrate a few possibilities that this may be ineffective or potentially biased, in general, higher expectations are placed on individuals with a degree in a justification of the credentials.
Higher expectations lead to bigger paychecks.
My opinion as an Engineering Manager? The vast majority of detail and memorization of formulas have faded from memory within 5 years of obtaining a college degree, assuming that it is not knowledge practiced daily. Yet, the ability to re-learn lost information and absorb and use new ideas is always present and will benefit any engineer throughout their career.
In short, all other variables being equal, I would select the degreed Engineer above others.
In conclusion, obtaining a college degree provides an overall benefit in terms of lifelong earnings. These earnings are balanced against higher expectations for output and ability. Both factors play into the time variability of the relevancy of the achievement.
While specific knowledge for any role is highly mercurial and the factors defining this include book knowledge, specific role presumption, and accumulated experience, the final conclusion here is:
There is no expiration date to the relevancy of a college degree.
Thanks for reading!
Originally published at kevinwanke.com on February 15, 2020. Kevin’s blog focuses on advice for new Engineers and for Engineering Managers.