We Don’t Need No Education

Don’t stop reading, I promise this isn’t another blog post about Pink Floyd, or music in general.  I’m only borrowing one of the band’s most famous refrains to make a point about the value of a college education in today’s workplace.

Pretty much any parent who has written a college tuition check recently, or will do so in the future, wonders if the terrifying outlay of cash is truly worth it.  Of course, we love our kids and would do anything for them, but with the cost of an undergraduate degree approaching $400,000 it’s easy to get a bit knock-kneed and question whether it is the best use of our resources.  Many parents can’t afford it so the only way their kids can get a degree, absent a scholarship, is to borrow the money. The impact on young grads of shouldering such massive debt is one of the hot button political issues of the day.

It’s all over the headlines:  Parents, students, educators, politicians, everybody complains about the cost of college.  But nothing changes and, in the end, we do what we can to pay the bill because if you want to be competitive in today’s economy a bachelor’s degree is a must have.  You won’t get far in marketing or media without it, that’s for sure.  In fact, most young grads entering my industry these days have studied and majored in marketing or media.

I always get a kick at watching the reaction of interns or eager college grads in their first jobs when I tell them that I’ve been the CMO at three companies and never took a marketing class in college.

“I double majored in history and political science.  The small Pennsylvania liberal arts college I attended didn’t even offer marketing, let alone any business classes,” is my usual line.

It’s clear from their surprised, confused looks what they’re thinking:  how does one become a CMO with such a useless degree.  They probably also question if I’m qualified to have my job.  Of course, they are too polite or afraid of offending me to say any of those things, so typically what I get is nervous laughter or smiles. 

As anyone who’s talked recently to someone under the age of 30 knows, the quickest way to establish rapport with them is to acknowledge that anything that happened before Netflix, smart phones, or the internet is Fred Flintstone stuff.  (There I go again – using a pre-Internet cultural reference to connote ancient history.)

So, I quickly follow by saying it was quite common for people during the “dark ages” to study liberal arts or humanities, especially if you weren’t sure what you wanted to do in life.  A strong liberal arts education would teach you how to think, make you a better communicator and expose you to the most important events, ideas, art, and people that influenced our cultures and history.  With such a foundation you were equipped to be a productive, enlightened citizen of the world – or so went the theory.

However, the rising costs of a degree and the changing expectations of employers have seriously undermined the logic behind studying the humanities.  In fact the whole idea of studying philosophy, history, or political science now seems awfully quaint, if not a total waste of time.

While I don’t buy into this myself, given how our expectations have evolved and with college becoming so absurdly expensive, it begs the question no matter what one studies, is a bachelor’s degree really necessary for marketing and media professionals?

Survey hiring manages and HR professionals across the industry and an overwhelming majority will say yes.  After all, the people in those roles today have college degrees (I know there are exceptions, but they are VERY rare) and none of those people (including me) can imagine a career path for themselves or others that doesn’t start with college.  And besides, what’s the alternative – hiring kids out of high school?  Breaking in a fresh faced 22-year-old college grad is one thing, I don’t know anyone in the business who wants the responsibility of training a bunch of teenagers.  Getting away from our teenagers is one of the main reasons parents come to work.

The sad truth is college and university presidents don’t seem to be losing sleep about bankrupting parents and saddling our young people with obscene amounts of debt, all in the name of making students “marketable” to people like us.  And while none of us may have the answers to fixing the cost of college, there is no escaping the fact that these schools are making a lot of money trading on our expectations as employers.  People keep paying because we’ve told them you can’t make it here without a college degree.

For that reason alone, I think all of us in the business, especially leaders, need to think long and hard about what we expect from young people seeking to build a career in marketing and media.  Lawyers, doctors, and accountants have established specific credentials to work in those fields.  In marketing some companies require candidates to complete an MBA, but it is far from universal.

Now I’m not suggesting that we compound the problem by requiring entry level candidates to get MORE education.  Quite the opposite, we should be open to the idea that the traditional four-year degree is no longer the right standard, at least for some roles.  There are fundamental questions we need to ask: What are the skills we need young people to have before they enter the workforce? What are the things best taught on the job versus the classroom? I could go on, but I think you get the idea.

We spend a lot of time talking about how we can make our workplaces more diverse, equitable and safe – and rightfully so.  But I’d like to suggest that while we continue to advance those important initiatives, we need to get together as an industry and rethink the role a college education plays in our career paths. Where university presidents have failed miserably, there is an opportunity for industry professionals to effect meaningful change.  A lot of people are struggling to meet a requirement that may no longer be necessary.  We owe it to ourselves as leaders and parents to address it. Most of all, we owe to the young people we are counting on to build the future in our business.

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