Do Skills Beat College Degrees?

A recent Heartland Monitor survey, reported on in the Atlantic, asked Americans what they felt were the most important qualities needed to succeed in the modern workplace. The article’s title suggested that many respondents felt that college was no longer necessary, and that a college degree was obsolete for success at getting a good job. This piece raised the notion that most Americans felt that job skills were more important than a college degree for success than earning a college degree. With college costs are continually rising, student debt is a huge issue, and many have questioned whether college is worth it or not. Aside from the debt, many people feel that college may not be worth the effort, and some students choose to just leave their higher education path to search for a shorter route that can lead them to economic success. But what is the role of these “workplace skills,” and do they really beat out having a college degree for lifelong success?

“Skills” Versus A College Degree

There are a two of connotations of the term skills that can apply to the workplace, and these definitions have been in place for decades in the U.S. Work world:

Traditional “Skills” Meaning

There has been a demarcation, traditionally, between job skills and higher education (although there are some exceptions, such as technology majors). The usual meaning of the term of job “skills” is more related to specialized work tasks, usually taught in vocational education, such as becoming a licensed plumber or electrician. These individuals are often referred to as skilled laborers, but even though they have specialized workplace skills, they are still considered blue-collar workers and not management. They are typically paid on an hourly basis rather than receive a salary, and are subject to the whims of the economy, being laid off during shortage times and brought back when there is work. This is a long-standing connotation of the “skilled” term, but it still applies today. Other occupations that are considered skilled laborers include welders, pipe fitters, and many others.

Universal Skills

“Universal skills” are ones that anyone can have, college degreed or not, and are seen by employers as a positive trait because it allows the person to fit in to the work environment. These skills are universally applicable, regardless of the person’s position or employer, and the benefits of these can generalize across settings and situations. Being able to effectively work with others, having good communication skills, being a team player, creative thinking, and being adaptable to new situations are all considered to be broadly useful as an employee. While a person may not have a college degree, they may have good universal skills. On the other hand, even if a person does have a college degree, they may lack these global skills, so they can have problems working with others, adapting to new situations, or have other flaws that might make them educated but unusable in the work world. Universal skills are relative to the person, and their personality, and really can’t be taught in college or on the job.

What The Survey Examined

So what did this Heartland Monitor survey examine? They asked both older and younger Americans to rank the most important attributes for success in the modern workplace. They gave them choices of, among others, working long hours, mastering computer technology, the ability to work with people from many backgrounds, and many other skills.

Let’s also examine what the survey found, keeping in mind the original article’s claims that “when it comes to getting a job, Americans believe skills beat degrees.” In the survey, both older and younger Americans (85% of them) said that the most important attribute to success at work is mastering computer technology. Next highest ranked was the ability to work with people from many backgrounds (79% agreed) and equal to that was needing to keep your skills sharp through training. Very sensible ratings, and no surprise. Technology is omnipresent in modern life, and with the world becoming a smaller place every day, being able to work with a variety of people is important, as is keep one’s knowledge current.

The root of the article’s claim, though, is that the survey found that only 55% of the younger group polled and 53% of the older respondents said that earning a college degree was “very important” to succeeding in the work place (note that rankings of merely “important” or “somewhat important” were left out). And, that there is an unacknowledged twist in this results: The generational context. The baby boomer generation, the “older” respondents in the survey, was the best educated generation in the history of the U.S., and they amassed more personal wealth by earning college credentials and being in the workforce than ever before. The fact that even more young people than older believed that a degree was important is significant unto itself. The article also hid until much later that 79% of the younger group said finishing college was very important to success in the workplace, second only to being able to work with people from diverse backgrounds.

The Popular Perception Of Skills Over Degrees

We live in an amazing era of opportunity, and in a country that affords it to anyone. Anybody can start a business, and dozens of new start-ups appear each day. A person can set up a Kickstarter and raise thousands of dollars for their idea, and everyone is looking for the big win in the shortest amount of time. We can do business directly and personally with other countries, and we hear stories of emerging opportunities, like Jack Ma and his Alibaba that has enthralled secretive China. And we also hear of people like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and many others who walked away from their college studies and did big things. The media is filled with successes that mesmerize us, and America’s love of “rugged individualism” beckons us to strike out on our own and make our miracle happen.

But not everyone is a Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, or has the salesmanship of Steve Jobs. Apple, Microsoft, and Facebook were “lightning in a bottle” for their founders, a one in a million miracle. (Actually, the statistical odds of being personally struck by lighting are higher than the odds of becoming rich on just applying one’s skills and championing an idea.) The founding a Facebook, or Uber, or any of the other fast success company sends the message that a can-do attitude and good skills are all it takes to succeed. But these successes are incredibly rare, which leaves college as the most certain path to building lifetime wealth for most of us.

The Individual Perception Of Success

The Atlantic article opened by advocating this skills-first perspective by interviewing a parent, in Idaho, who said her children took a shorter term route to a career, and that college wasn’t for everyone. Her son earned a two-year engineering technology degree, and her daughter became a graphic designer by merely applying her artistic skills. It’s true, there are many people who use their skills only, or earn shorter-term credentials at community colleges, and are perfectly happy with their decision. They can find their own success and enjoy what they do, and have blissful lives. But “success” is a relative term, and we all may have a somewhat different definition of what it is.

For others, they may feel that the return on investment for their efforts may be too small, or not worth it after they are done. Decades of data shows that college graduates earn, on average, 45% more than those with two-year degrees, career diplomas, or just some college. While in rural areas, “success” may be a $18 per hour job for a person with an engineering technology degree, in comparison, those with a four-year engineering degree have starting salaries of $70,000 or more.

Economic and job trends matter by geography as well. A college degree may not be needed very much in the rural west, but it will be in other places. The world’s population is mostly in urban centers, and this trend is only growing. The competition for jobs is much higher in cities and their suburbs, and degreed professionals know this very well. The U.S. now ranks only 19th of 30 developed nations in college completion, and we’re being outpaced in producing degree holders by countries like China, South Korea, and many others. With progressively more competition from credentialed people, and a more integrated globalized workforce, a college degree is nearly essential to compete in an urban or global workplace. You may have noticed that more engineers, doctors, computer scientists, and others are from foreign lands, and they used their degrees to open the door to the jobs they have.

The Danger Of Skills Over A Degree

In my work I’ve come across the pattern of some students giving up on college, to their parents chagrin, and pursuing the skills route. Typically it’s a young man, which the data shows they’re more likely to do, and often they pursue skills in computer science: Learning languages like HTML, adding SEO skills, and other self-taught areas. The problem is that there are many, many others doing the same thing, so the market becomes saturated, with the competitors who have credentials winning all the work. That’s the downside of the skills-only approach: If anyone can learn it, they will, so it increases competition and drives down the cost. There is a rarity factor for economics and pay – having scarce, specialized credentials allows one to command a higher salary, and a college degree often represents exactly these credentials.

The Reality: Both A College Degree And Skills Are Needed

The article finally acquiesced to what we all know, and what the survey supported in the first place: Both a college degree and skills are needed to be successful in the modern workplace. It even added a quote from a retired school superintendent, who described a college degree as “now indispensable.” It admitted, much later in the text though, that there is years of data to show that a college degree has unsurpassable value, both in economic and other terms. Objective data over 30 years shows that college graduates not only have greater lifetime earnings, but also greater health status, higher happiness index scores, greater social status, and even an increased likelihood of remaining married and getting married in the first place. When answering whether skills beat degrees, knowing the consistency of this evidence points to a clear answer.


While this article reported thoroughly on the results of a survey, the title is a sensationalism, intended to attract attention, not report the topic in context. The author even aggrandized her reactions to this survey, even saying the survey results were a “startling admission” about the perception of skills being more important than a college degree, even though their equivalent value is mentioned at the end. Unfortunately this delay merely made it sound like the author was the last person in America that didn’t know that both a college degree and practical skills are needed to succeed in work modern life.

The final word is this: Buried a behind sensationalized news headline, the article merely told us what everyone already knew, and what every job ad shows. It’s a “degree plus experience” that is needed to succeed in the modern workplace, and the experience portion summarizes all the “skills” that the survey reflected.