Is a Degree More Valuable than Job Experience?

Should you keep studying or go to work? The debate is widespread regarding the value of a degree and whether or not job experience is more valuable than an academic credential. If you are having an ongoing debate with yourself as to whether or not it is worth spending the time and the money to earn your degree, you’re not alone. In the past, all it took was drive and perhaps some years of professional experience to land a high-paying position with a great benefits package. Now, even college graduates at the top of their class can experience trouble finding roles in the field that they major in without some prior work in the field.  In this article, our experts will unpack the issue, discussing the cost versus return on a college degree as well as how certain industries view experience in the field. Let’s get started.

experience vs degree

Education Versus Experience: The Double-Edged Sword

It has been a dilemma for ages. Young professionals need experience to find a good job, but they also need a job in order to get that necessary experience. The solution to this double-edged sword seemed to be go to school to earn a degree in a field that is high in demand. After all, with your degree you can develop your knowledge of the field and then learn how to be a professional in the setting. Earning a degree is sometimes perceived as the best way to earn a decent income, but that is not always how things turn out.

The Cost of a College Degree

As with anything, there are advantages and disadvantages associated with pursuing a college degree. One major drawback is the significant cost of higher education. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), undergraduate students paid over $30,000 in tuition on average for the academic year of 2018-2019. That’s 28% more than they paid just a decade ago. Clearly, the price of a bachelor’s degree is going up, leading many a would-be college graduate to question whether or not it’s all worth it.

This concern is only compounded when you add student loan debt to the equation. Recent figures show that Americans owe more than $1.5 trillion in collective student loans. That breaks down to very nearly $40,000 per student. The thought of graduating from school with that much debt before even earning a dime on the job is overwhelming for many undergrads.

The Return on Investment (ROI) of a College Credential

Still, college has long been viewed as an investment in one’s future. In this regard, it’s expected that a student will have to invest money into their schooling in order to reap the rewards of a high-paying job in the future. Does this formula still work in today’s economy? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the answer remains “yes.” According to a recent survey, individuals with a bachelor’s degree make nearly twice as much per week as those with just a high school diploma, and their employment rate is significantly higher as well. Findings from Georgetown University’s report entitled “The College Payoff” echoed this sentiment, pointing out that a four-year degree is worth about $2.8 million over the course of a lifetime—84% more than the value of a high school diploma. The data overwhelmingly suggests that the more education you have, the more money you will make, and the less likely it is that you will find yourself unemployed. Problem solved, right?

That’s not the end of the story, however. If you read the fine print on the BLS website, for example, it clearly states that the data does not “take into account completion of training programs in the form of apprenticeships and other on-the-job-training, which may also influence earnings and unemployment rates.” That’s a big piece of the puzzle that’s missing, and it brings to mind the question: Is on-the-job training as valuable as a college degree? After all, if you can earn as much long-term with experience in the field as you could with a degree, then it would make sense to forego the cost of college and start putting money in the bank right away.

The Real Answer? It Depends

As is the case with most things involving jobs and higher education, the real answer is complicated. As much as we would like to provide a cut-and-dry solution to the dilemma over job experience versus a degree, it really all depends on your individual circumstances, particularly the vocational field you intend to work in and the actual position you hope to attain.

According to the Georgetown study, the value of your degree can outweigh job experience but only in some fields. If you earn an advanced-level degree in an area like computer science, engineering, or information technology, you will earn significantly more than the average salary of an educator with a basic degree or certificate who has been in the field for 10-plus years, for instance. Ten years of experience in a STEM field wouldn’t hold as much weight as an academic credential, though.

To complicate the matter further, it’s true that there are some very high-paying occupations that do not require a college degree. For example, nuclear power reactor operators make over $100,000 a year with just a high school diploma, but they must undergo extensive on-the-job training to reach this level of earning power. Similar circumstances exist for other occupations such as commercial pilots, criminal investigators, and elevator installers, for example. These lucrative positions require a fair amount of training, but no college degree.

Jobs That Require a Degree and No Experience

Still, these are exceptions to the rule. There are far more professions in this income bracket associated with a bachelor’s credential. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) lists 68 different occupations with median annual wages of over $80,000 that require only a bachelor’s degree and no prior experience in the field. Below are just a few examples of high-paying jobs that can be had with just an undergraduate degree alone, along with their mean annual salary, according to the BLS:

  • Computer and Information Systems Managers: $151,150
  • Architectural and Engineering Managers: $149,530
  • Petroleum Engineers: $137,330
  • Advertising and Promotions Managers: $141,490
  • Computer Hardware Engineers: $119,560
  • Computer Network Architects: $116,780

With a master’s degree, individuals will have additional opportunities to earn a handsome salary. Some examples include:

  • Computer and Information Research Scientists: $126,830
  • Political Scientists: $125,350
  • Nurse Anesthetists: $117,670
  • Economists: $108,350
  • Education Administrators: $98,490

This is not to suggest that individuals with aspirations in the above occupations can’t benefit from experience working in the field. It is only to point out that prior experience is not specifically required as a prerequisite to employment. Certainly, applicants who can demonstrate prior work in an industry or vocation will be better qualified for employment and more attractive to hiring managers.

The Sweet Spot: A Degree Plus Job Experience

The issue of job experience versus a degree is no doubt a complicated one. In fact, the more you dig into the issue, the more complex it may seem. Perhaps that’s because you’re asking the wrong question. As we’ve seen, there are many cases where a job requires both academic training and on-the-job experience. In fact, some of the most lucrative jobs require both. Here are some examples:

  • Airline and Commercial Pilots: $130,440
  • Actuaries: $111,030
  • Sales Engineers: $108,830
  • Construction Managers: $97,180

Moreover, applicants with experience almost always beat out similarly educated candidates for the same job. Thus, the question you may consider asking yourself is not whether you need a degree or experience, but what kind of degree and how much job experience you’ll need to reach your career goals.

Again, Experience Always Counts

The fact is, whether a specific job requires prior experience or just a degree is almost a moot point. In reality, experience always matters. The more experience you have, the more proficient you’ll be at your job, which can make you stand out amongst your co-workers. After years of working in your profession, you’ll be first in-line for promotions, which in turn, will increase your earning potential. If you look at some of the highest paying jobs in America, you’ll see that many of them are managerial roles. These positions are not handed out to employees without several years of experience working in a specific role. In order to be a manager, you need to understand your occupation inside and out. This level of comprehension cannot be taught in school; instead, real-world experience is the only way it can be learned.

The Game Plan

If it’s true that you need both a degree and experience in order to be successful in your chosen field, then the real question becomes: “How do I go about earning a credential plus work experience?” Since accomplishing both of these goals at the same time can be challenging, it’s a valid question. The important thing to remember, though, is that it’s not an impossible situation. Here are some strategies for getting your feet wet in your chosen field while simultaneously hitting the books.

Volunteer

With the goal of earning as much as possible in your occupation, volunteer work may be the furthest thing from your mind, but it shouldn’t be. Volunteering your time while in college can benefit your career in the long term if you play your cards right. Why? Because it can be an easy way to gain some real-world experience in the industry when you’re brand new to the field. While you may not yet qualify for an internship, for example, few people will turn down free work. While you won’t earn any immediate dough for your volunteerism, it is something you can put down on your resume to show a future employer that you have some experience working in the area, which can give you a competitive edge in terms of being hired on for a lucrative position when the time comes.

Pursue an Internship

Once you have some volunteer work in the field under your belt, so to speak, the next step is to find an internship or apprenticeship in your chosen vocation. To find opportunities to work under a seasoned professional in your prospective occupation, use your school’s resources, including the career services department as well as your professors’ connections. Don’t be afraid to ask about available opportunities, and let your network know about your professional intentions as well as your availability. Also, keep in mind that some internships are paid internships, so you can start earning money while also gaining experience. Win-win!

Work Part-Time

While it might not be feasible to get a job doing exactly what you want to do in your chosen field while you’re still in school, that doesn’t mean you can’t start earning valuable job experience. Getting a part-time job that’s relevant to your future vocation is a valuable pursuit, and it will show prospective employers that you’re serious about attaining your goals. For example, if you’re working toward a nursing degree, you won’t be able to get a job as an RN prior to graduation, but you might qualify for work as a medical receptionist or nursing assistant, for example. Similar entry-level jobs are available in nearly every industry for part-time workers.

Will an Undergraduate Degree Payoff? Yes, But So Will Experience

There is not denying that an advanced degree has value, but what is the value of a bachelor’s degree compared to experience? This all depends on the industry. In some fields, high school graduates with experience do tend to earn more than inexperienced college degree holders for the first few years in the workplace. While this is true, degree holders almost always end up earning more over the long term than those without a degree. At the end of the day, it’s impossible to separate a degree from experience in most situations. Instead, we have to reconcile that a combination of the two is best. While the value of a degree is high in most fields, practical experience also has its value.

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Maxim Sorokopud
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Melissa Anderson
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Julie McCaulley
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