The Value of Work Experience vs. the Value of a Degree

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Bachelor’s degree? Check.  

Internships? Check, check.

Leadership experience? Check.

Excellent oral and written communications skills? Check and check.

I like to think I sound qualified for the workforce. New to the young adult sphere, I spend most of my time at coffee shops, searching for ways to kick-start my career. Aside from realizing that the particular jobs I want require a master’s degree, I’m also noticing how unrealistic the minimum requirements are. In other words, the checklist above is not enough for an employer’s consideration. I suppose frustrating best describes the millennial job hunt.

Experience

I attended a small liberal arts college, where I gained extensive leadership experience and impressive work experience. I served as a sorority president, created tangible products, and designed books through two publishing internships. I also spent post-graduation working in special events. I took advantage of nearly every opportunity I had. I’m only a year out of college. Go, me!

I just can’t shake the feeling that I did something wrong.

I recently went on an interview for a dream job. At the very least, I really wanted the interview so that I could gain some practice. To my surprise, it went swimmingly. I received feedback, confirming that I had nailed it. The interviewer said I “did nothing wrong.” Yet I was not offered the job. The other candidate simply “had more relevant experience.”

Where do millennials catch a break? I want to start my career. Call me stubborn, but I deserve having a real job now that I have a degree. I did not go to college and graduate in four years only to feel as qualified as a high schooler—an exaggeration on my part. I’m lucky that I have parents who support me in the meantime. But I’m not their only child, and I’m not the kind of person who wants to depend on her parents at this stage of life.

Tuition

When my parents graduated college in the ‘80s, a bachelor’s degree was not only cheaper, but also necessary to find well-paying jobs. My mother told me her classes cost about $4,800 per year. PER YEAR! Overall tuition was just over $19,000. Tuition today is double or triple that amount, depending on the institution. We can lean on scholarships, financial aid and loans for assistance, but it still boggles my mind that tuition has increased so much.

The cost is higher in part because the facilities, technology and resources are better. If you want to go to a college with top-notch software and research labs, then you need to pay for that. I get it. But the outrageous increase in cost leads me to my next point:

Salary

Starting salary for my parents’ generation was about $20,000-$25,000. Today’s starting salary (based on what I gather from my peers) can be anywhere from $22,000-$35,000 for entry-level jobs. The rate at which salaries has increased does not match the way in which tuition has.

It’s not just education. The cost of living is higher. Families who want to support their children’s higher education need to be able to do so without falling into a financial hole. Beyond that, young adults have even more to consider if they are the ones who must pay for their own education.

Degree

Tuition isn’t the only issue. Once you earn your degree, you’re still not qualified to get jobs because you don’t have enough experience. Some of us change majors and add minors to our degrees at the last minute. Does it even matter? Author Jeff Selingo wonders if we need to rethink the bachelor’s degree. Selingo states, “The underemployment rate is 44 percent for graduates ages 22 to 27, meaning the jobs they hold don’t require bachelor’s degrees. And the average age of financial independence for college graduates these days is 30.” Perhaps we need to more closely consider what we are investing in. Yes, education is invaluable; however, we are still people who need to survive financially.

At what point will the payoff for all my time, energy, and money I spent kick in? Even if I find some internship opportunities right now, it would just make me feel like I am qualified to work for free. That’s not fair.

We should be proud that more people are educated these days. The problem is that they’re all competing for the same jobs. If I can never get the “relevant experience” without previously having “relevant experience,” then I’m entering a system that labels me a failure, and puts me and my family in debt.

I propose we start getting creative. As a society, we may need to go back to the drawing board and reevaluate what is important when it comes to career-building and education-claiming.

Beyond all of this, I will keep trudging along and work hard for the best. My time will come, and so will yours.