How To Get Hired Without A Degree

Career coach and blogger Marty Nemko has been writing about the biggest career myths, such as "Do what you love," "Everyone should network," "Job seekers must sell themselves," and "Being your own boss is often wise." This post takes a look at the idea that getting a degree is always "worth it."

Conventional wisdom holds that getting a degree is worth it. Advocates cite the (misleading) statistic that college degree holders earn $1 million more. They also argue that getting a degree is a good way to wait out the lousy job market.

I used to believe that but I'm no longer as sure.

Why the $1 million stat is misleading
The pool of college graduates tends to be brighter, more motivated, and better connected than is the pool of non-graduates. You could lock college graduates in a closet for four years after high school and they would still earn much more. The million-dollar statistic is misleading also because it's retrospective to a time when only the best and brightest went to college and employers couldn't offshore jobs and so had to pay high salaries to college graduates. Alas, that's no longer true. In 1970, 40 percent of high school graduates went to college. Now over 70 percent attend college.

What's happening to today's degree holders
Studies of recent years' degree recipients' efforts to find work suggest that many career-minded people should consider spending the time and money on activities other than getting a degree:

An Associated Press analysis of data from 2011 found 54 percent of college graduates under 25 were unemployed or under-employed, meaning they were working in jobs they could have gotten out of high school. That's especially likely in fields that don't particularly impress employers such as sociology, art history, or American studies.

More:College Dropout Turns eBay Page Into $100 Million Business

Alas, according to a 2012 Georgetown University study, even science and technology majors have, an unemployment rate higher than the national average of 7.6%. For example, major in science: the unemployment rate is 8.2% Mechanical engineering: 8.6% Information systems: 11.7%.

But what about graduate school as a way to improve employability? In March 2013, the ABA Journal reported that just over half of grads had full-time legal jobs. And doctorates? The National Science Foundation reports that fewer than 40% of new PhDs had a position waiting for them at graduation.

I have been unable to find national averages for that supposedly most marketable degree, the MBA. But according to a November 2012 Bloomberg/BusinessWeek report, 10% of Berkeley MBAs were unemployed three months after graduation and 23% of MBAs from USC were. One can only imagine the unemployment rate for graduates of less prestigious MBA programs.

True, education shouldn't just be about employability but about learning, for example, developing thinking skills. Alas, many degree holders have learned frighteningly little. The definitive book on how much learning occurs in college, Academically Adrift published by University of Chicago Press, found that 36 percent of college graduates didn't grow at all in writing and critical thinking!

More:Has The MBA Become A Worthless Degree?

Better Alternatives?
Of course, you don't need to convince anyone to hire you without degrees if you're self-employed. But self-employment is often more difficult even than many people imagine.

If you'd like a non-degree path to becoming well-employed by someone else, consider what I call You U.

At You U, you, perhaps with a mentor, pick career-boosting activities that may benefit you more than a degree. Instead of having to take a mass of often not-useful courses from one university, you can choose the most relevant courses and webinars taught anywhere, for example, from among the 70,000 courses from 300 sources aggregated on You might also attend professional conferences, local chapter meetings of your professional association, do independent reading and watching of videos, and/or get a formal or informal internship or job at the elbow of a master.

Not only does You U allow you to learn what you need from the best people and do it more quickly, it costs a tiny fraction of a State U, let alone Private U degree.

Convincing Employers
But will employers hire a You U "graduate?" I have asked audiences if they'd consider an applicant who included the following in their job application letter over a degree holder. Eighty percent said yes:

Dear (Insert Name of Employer),
I suspect you'll be tempted to toss my application because I don't have the required degree. But having heard many degree holders complain that they didn't learn enough of practical value to justify the time and money, I decided to get my additional training as follows. (Insert all you did at You U.) But now comes the moment of truth. I chose to emphasize substance over form, but will you interview me? Hoping to hear from you.


Wouldn't you consider hiring or promoting someone who attended You U?

The San Francisco Bay Guardian called Dr. Nemko "The Bay Area's Best Career Coach" and he was Contributing Editor for Careers at U.S. News where he now also writes. His sixth and seventh books were published in 2012: How to Do Life: What They Didn't Teach You in School and What's the Big Idea? 39 Disruptive Proposals for a Better America. More than 1,000 of his published writings are free on He posts here weekly.

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