How Much Does Education Level Actually Matter in Hiring?

What do Bill Gates, Michael Dell and Mark Zuckerberg have in common (besides having more money than you do)?

They’re college dropouts. Yep, the trio of tech entrepreneurs each found success despite all quitting school by the time they turned 21. Which raises the question: Does the education level of an employee really matter? Should it?

Perhaps not. At least, not anymore. Here’s why.

Changing Business Norms

Increasingly, employers are putting more effort into evaluating job candidates based on their experience than their education level. In fact, you don’t even need a degree to get a well-paying job at companies such as Google, Apple and Bank of America.

Ernst & Young is a great example why. The accounting firm’s UK offices removed degree requirements when their own internal research found that having (or not having) a college degree wasn’t really a predictor of employee success.

Instead, old-fashioned work ethic, attitude and appetite for learning are still among the best indicators of good or bad performance. And of course, skills matter too — but whether employees develop them in the classroom or on the job may not make much of a difference.

Changing Generational Norms

This trend coincides with changing generational dynamics, as well as the fact that a college degree may not be as valuable as it used to be — especially for young people. Members of the Gen Z generation saw their millennial elders get buried in student loan debt without the earning potential to make it worthwhile. And though about 61% of grade school students plan to attend college, the generation is still known for being practical and averse to debt.

Thus, some Gen Zers have explored alternative tracks, from UnCollege to trade schools, apprenticeships and just getting straight to work. As employers begin to recruit entry-level talent, they may find more and more of these unconventional applicants in the resume pile.

These applicants are worth equal consideration, and not just because the next all-star employee could be in the mix: Workplace diversity (of all kinds) matters. Hiring employees from all walks of life, as well as from different education and experience levels, instantly boosts the range of ideas and skills you can tap in your business.

Finding the Right Balance of Education and Experience

If you’re a small business owner, you too may want to consider removing education requirements from corporate-level jobs (unless, of course, those jobs require advanced degrees, such as for doctors or attorneys). But that doesn’t mean you have to abandon the concept of qualifications entirely.

Instead, consider these tips to find good talent, regardless of where (or if) they attended college:

1. Look at Alternative Educational Paths

A conventional four-year education isn’t the only way to learn. Some applicants may have taken the online school route, while others may have just completed individual classes from a community college to shore up their strengths in a specific area. Remember, after all, that a large part of a four-year degree includes core curriculum and electives. Someone may have skipped the degree but received the pertinent education.

2. Give Credit for Practical Experience

Other applicants may choose to bypass the college classroom entirely in favor of practical experience, which can be just as valuable to a business. Trade schools and apprenticeships offer great opportunities to gain real-world experience, and even IBM considers applicants with direct experience, such as through vocational training or coding camps. Approach those candidates with an unbiased, open mind, and you might be surprised at how much their other qualifications fit your needs.

3. Recognize Passion and Effort

Employees who are passionate about what they do can become a tremendous asset for your business — but a traditional education isn’t the only way to demonstrate zeal. Look for evidence of the lengths that candidates have gone to make inroads into the industry, from joining professional affiliations to attending events and conferences to expand their knowledge. Often, quality candidates will convey their enthusiasm at the get-go through the cover letter and carry that zeal with them through the interview process and beyond.

No matter what qualifications you add or remove from your hiring criteria, know that at the end of the day, you’re hiring a person — not a piece of paper. Perhaps that person will have a degree and perhaps they won’t. Either way, what matters is that they perform the job well.

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