The Almighty College Degree: What’s it worth these days?

REGION – Framed diplomas are staples of the office walls of doctors and lawyers. They reassure patients and clients that the recipients have dedicated years of their lives studying at prestigious institutions and are trained by top scholars to skillfully handle the most delicate and important of situations. For these professionals and many others, an advanced degree is an unquestionable requirement.

But what about for those hoping to make their careers in the field of business, the arts, computer science or the thousands of other industries where experience is perhaps best learned on the job and natural abilities often trump formal training? Does a college degree really matter? If so, does the highest rung on the education ladder offer a better shot at getting the most desired position or highest salary? Given that more than 2.5 million people in the United States will graduate with an associate's or bachelor's degree in 2010 and enter the toughest job market since the 2001 recession, it seems so.

But just as admissions officers at large universities do not consider prospective students solely based on test scores or grade point averages, employers also give significant weight to an applicant's relevant experience and character, which can many times measure higher than their more formally educated competitors.

As Senior Manager of Recruiting and Employee Development for Hagerty Insurance, Kate Hogan agrees that while the majority of the 450 employees at Hagerty have some type of secondary education, work experience and performance with previous positions are carefully considered.

"It depends on the role and level of experience we're looking for. There are some positions where a four-year bachelor's degree would be required [like] the specific professions pertaining to accounting or marketing or something that's really geared towards a certain professional segment," says Hogan. But when considering high-level positions, if a master's degree is critical to the role requirements, she says significant work experience can also be equivalent to advanced degrees.

"You might have an applicant that has a master's degree but doesn't have a lot of applicable work experience that relates to the role, but then you have someone who has a bachelor's degree but has had some strong work experience and progression of growth with their responsibilities," says Hogan.

Although many positions within the company don't warrant a particular degree, Hogan says they do like to see that somebody has gained a level of education in some realm. "It gives us a sense of maybe that person has taken an initiative to broaden their knowledge and education perspective at many different levels," she says.

In her role as Career and Employment Specialist at Northwestern Michigan College, Kristy McDonald reviews thousands of resumes and cover letters of job seekers. Connecting them with local, global and national businesses, she finds that as the country is moving from a manufacturing nation, employers are seeking people who demonstrate superior critical thinking and solid communication – skills that can be improved with some level of extended education.

"There are a lot of applicants, but often the level of professional writing is not where it should be. You're definitely going to learn (in higher education) how to write a better resume and cover letter, which is one of the biggest problems we see in our area," says McDonald.

Community college enrollment in Michigan has increased 20 percent in the last five years due in large part to the shift in the state's industrial landscape. "We have people who have worked in the industrial field for 28 years, and they are coming back to retool and learn new skills, and other who say, 'I can't get a job without a degree'. You may need that degree just to get in the door," she says.

Fewer professional positions available for recent undergrads, as well as corporate downsizing, have many contemplating a pricey master's program in order to get a foot in the door and a leg up on the pay scale. "Someone could have a masters and are not considered because they are on the high end in terms of pay, and that can pose a problem," she says, adding that many employers also feel a master's applicant demonstrates the determination and ability to balance life with an intense two-year degree.

McDonald stresses that the decision to invest in college should be based on what the prospective student's end goal is, beyond the piece of paper. "The person sitting next to me who I am trying to help has to decide for themselves if they are right for this pathway and this is what they want. That's where success comes from," she says.

Since Greg Martin graduated from Traverse City West Senior High School in 2004, student loan debt for those exiting with a bachelor's degree has increased 24 percent. Despite his current struggle to find a job in his chosen field and pay off the $50,000 debt he accrued while attending both community and private out-of-state colleges to pursue a degree in psychology, Martin is decidedly happy with his decision to get a higher education degree. "I still think it was a good decision. I don't regret it at all," he says.

His search to find a big league job began this spring when he returned to Traverse City after earning a bachelor's degree from Goshen College in Indiana. "I did expect to be working, but it's somewhat hard to find a job in my field because as a psychology major, there isn't really as much you can do with a B.A., unless you get your masters or above," he says. Martin is currently gaining field experience this summer at the Grand Traverse YMCA, working with 4-6th graders. Come fall he'll be back in the job market hoping for a position as an assistant in a special education class but is realistic about his chances, given the uncertain economy and competitive talent pool.

"I realized early on I was probably going to have to get my master's but one thing I don't think that people are educated on is the amount of money it takes to actually get through four or five years of college, so those prices kind of make it difficult to go to graduate school right after college. I was unprepared for that, and that's the reason I'm holding off," he says.

The most important piece of advice he has for prospective students: Make sure you have it financially planned before you start. "I was the first person in my family to go to college and ?- myself and my parents – we were all pretty naïve before I started about what it would take and how much debt it would put you into once you're done, but I'm definitely glad I did it," says Martin. BN