Navigating College vs. Experience: Degree or Grit?

Book smarts vs. street smarts: Exploring the eternal battle between college and real-life experience.

What’s better for a career: the school of hard knocks where on-the-job training is your teacher or the prestigious halls of academia where degrees are earned? This decision shapes one’s career trajectory, self-development, and even perception of success.

College has long been considered the springboard to a successful future, providing comprehensive teaching, academic rigor, and a reputation for excellence.

Real-world experience bypasses the ivory tower in favor of a crucible of professional reality, from job shadowing and apprenticeships to entrepreneurial ventures.

Here’s the thing: college versus job experience is about to face off in an exciting battle that goes far beyond binary choices. To achieve a prosperous and fulfilling career, we will examine the difficult trade-offs, the grey areas between these two realms, and how integrating them might be the key.

Benefits of a College Degree

Obtaining a college degree is always a good course of action. In the words of B.B. King, “Education is the one thing that no one can take from you.” Once you learn it, it’s yours!

So let’s examine some of the benefits but keep in mind there are always exceptions – but in general:

  • More education equates to higher-paying jobs
  • You are less likely to become unemployed
  • You will be considered more favorably for a promotion (if you perform well)
  • When a college degree is required, you have an advantage over others without one
  • You may have been granted an internship or fieldwork while obtaining your degree – this gives you experience along with an education
  • Proves that you are disciplined, motivated, and fairly intelligent
  • Taking courses in many disciplines has given you a well-rounded education

Drawbacks to a College Degree

  • College can be quite expensive
  • Big time commitment – usually several years
  • Not gaining any hands-on experience

Benefits of Work Experience

  • You have obtained the skills required to do the job
  • You have gained real-world skills, like interacting with customers, managers, and co-workers, and know the value of teamwork
  • You have developed critical thinking skills and value work ethics
  • You can continue to grow as you receive more and more knowledge and experience.

Drawbacks to Having Work Experience (Without a Degree)

  • You will make less money
  • Doors close without a degree – you are not even considered
  • Typically, your knowledge is limited to one field
  • More likely to become unemployed

In the Eyes of Employers, Which One Is Most Valuable?

When evaluating job candidates, employers must consider many gray areas. For instance, is the job more labor intensive? If so, experience may reign supreme. Are they hiring an engineer? A college degree may look more favorable in this case. It all depends on the industry, the position, and the person doing the hiring.

Most employers would prefer both if they had their druthers. However, having your degree may signal that you only require minimal training and can learn and advance quickly. Conversely, your education only proves that you can succeed academically. Transferring to real-life on-the-job performance remains to be seen.

Work experience can prove that you have the necessary skills to perform the job today but need more education to advance tomorrow.  If you received your college degree twenty years ago, it is probably irrelevant today, especially in technology. Your experience would hold more weight in this scenario; however, obtaining additional training and certifications would be ideal as technology advances.

Integrating Education and Experience

If you want to be fully prepared to enter the job market, education and experience should be your goal. Not everyone lives the fairytale story of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg as the superstars rising to the top without a degree. (never completed)

For the rest of us, onward and upward!

How To Gain Work Experience While Attending College 

  • Do volunteer work on campus – Look for opportunities in your major that are recurrent. These jobs are typically easy to find and provide great job experience.
  • Do an internship – Working for a company in your field is a fantastic opportunity and will often lead to a job offer upon completing your internship.
  • Freelance – Connect with employers online that have platforms you can participate in. Engaging on these sites will provide invaluable experience. Creative industries and most service-oriented industries offer freelance opportunities.
  • Job boards – Campus job boards provide many job listings. Even if there are none in your major, gaining real-world work experience in some areas is worth it.
  • Research projects – Asking a professor if you may assist them with a research paper is an excellent and prestigious way to get experience in your profession. Having an accredited research project with your name included as a contributing researcher speaks volumes to an employer.

NOTE: Most jobs you do while attending college do not pay well, but the experience acquired will be the payback. Never underestimate the power of learning from experience.

How To Gain an Education While Working

  • Online courses – Nowadays, earning a degree online is quite common. You can learn based on your schedule rather than being in a classroom at a scheduled time.
  • Programs for part-time students – Many colleges offer part-time programs specifically designed for the working student. If you can handle three credits with your work schedule, this is worth pursuing.
  • Alter your work schedule – If permissible at work, try changing your work schedule so you may leave earlier or come in later to attend a college course needed.
  • Attend evening or weekend classes – Many courses are offered on Saturdays or evenings. Check into these because they exist primarily for the working student.
  • Trade school – If college is not the right option for you, consider getting a diploma or certificate from a trade school. It is only a two-year commitment, whereas a bachelor’s degree is at least four years.

  • Apprenticeships – If you prefer even less time to gain some form of accreditation, the apprentice route may be for you. Here you will earn money while learning a trade.

NOTE: Many companies will pay for your education while you continue to work for them. Of course, you must maintain a passing grade. After you receive your degree, the company will often consider you for a higher position.

Also, if a job states “degree required,” don’t automatically dismiss it. For example, you may state in your cover letter something like this: “10 years of experience in lui of a degree”. 

Final Thoughts

There is no true winner between job experience and education. It’s kind of like the chicken and the egg scenario. For some jobs, say construction, experience is vitally more important than a college degree. In the medical field, though, a college education (even an advanced degree in some professions) is imperative to do the job. 

The good news is that both can be obtained simultaneously. Get the education and/or experience you need to pursue a rewarding career through hard work and dedication. After all, I have never heard anyone say they wish they were less educated or regret having so much experience – have you?

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