CAREER

Getting a college degree: pros and cons

Is it really necessary these days to go to college, or can you still get the job you want by taking specialized classes? Does having a degree affect whether you can get a job or advance in your career? Is losing a few years of your life to get a degree really worth it? Writing for Manshuq, Madina Bulembaeva set out to weigh the pros and cons, talking to people who’ve found success in their careers, both with and without a diploma.

Madina Bulembaeva

April 15th, 2021

Profession

COLLEGE? ABSOLUTELY REQUIRED

It’s unsafe, to say the least, to go to a doctor who didn’t go to med school, or to live in a home designed by an amateur architect. There are plenty of professions that simply demand that you have at least the basic knowledge higher degrees provide. If you’re going to treat patients or design buildings, then it’s fair to expect you’ll need those five to seven years of lectures, mid-terms and internships. Same for future chemists, bankers, lawyers and other jobs; taking courses on the side can be useful for their resumes, but it’s not enough to be considered a full education.

COLLEGE? TOTALLY OPTIONAL

Being a pilot, on the other hand, is a different matter. You may be surprised, but believe it or not on some airlines’ websites they note that future pilots only need to have a high school education. Spend a couple of years at flight school and do a year-long internship abroad and now you can fly a plane! Flight attendants, too, only need to take special courses. Same goes for subway and tram conductors and bus drivers - no need for a fancy degree.


For programmers and other jobs in tech, college may even be counterproductive. When it comes to coding and developing, what matters is real-life practice. These fields are so fast-changing, anyways, that universities can’t keep up. Zuckerberg and Jobs built their empires without Harvard and Yale, right? Then there are creative jobs like being a jeweler, restorer, designer, actor, model, host or cook — they get by just fine without a degree. In these industries, what’s more important is your portfolio, your charisma and your skills. Then there are jobs like being a lifeguard, a firefighter, a model, a dancer; for these, what matters most is that you’re fit.

Employment

COLLEGE? ABSOLUTELY REQUIRED

If you don’t want to stay in an entry-level job your whole life and dream of moving up the career ladder, it’ll be hard to do without a degree. The difference between being a sales manager and the director of sales, for example, could be a college education. That’s especially true if you’re at a large international company or one that’s state-owned, or a government contractor. Job listings often explicitly state that for upper management you need to have a specialized degree. And to earn a lot of state licenses you’re automatically required to have a college degree.

COLLEGE? TOTALLY OPTIONAL

Having a degree doesn’t guarantee you’ll get a job — not at all. Management theory as it’s taught at universities is almost irrelevant in practice, and HR departments and corporate management teams are well aware. After all, they graduated from the same universities. They realize that much more important than a nice diploma are your skills, both hard skills and soft skills. Credentials won’t make a sales manager any more charming, and they won’t help you close a sale. And if a chef can make croissants from heaven, people will forgive the fact she doesn’t have a degree. If she keeps developing her art by taking extra classes and studying under masters in her field, then the proof will be in her hard-earned Michelin stars

Socialization

COLLEGE? ABSOLUTELY REQUIRED

College is a rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood. When someone goes straight from high school to the workforce, that can be scary. Suddenly you’re among adults and professionals, and all the formulas you’ve memorized and your perfect grades won’t help you a bit. You’re entering a different world with its own rules.


At college, the transition is much smoother. You’re with a group of your peers, kids just like you. If at work you can get booted for small mistakes, here it’s not like you’re going to get expelled — you’ll just get a lower grade. And it’s a great environment for networking. There’s always a chance you’ll end up sitting next to your future business partner.


Plus, higher education boosts your self-confidence. You learn to be more independent and whatever competition you encounter is generally friendly. And let’s admit, in the popular imagination, intellectuals are generally those who have fancy degrees.

COLLEGE? TOTALLY OPTIONAL

Of course there are naysayers who insist that they would gladly trade their years of studying in college for an internship at Apple. That sounds cool, but how can you even get to that level and, most importantly, make the most of the opportunity? In real life, it really is possible to make more connections and contacts, at team building sessions and corporate events, for example, or while sharing a smoke or a coffee.


It’s easy to think of certain people who’ve been successful without ever getting big degrees - from Aristotle Onassis to Tarantino and Cameron.

Knowledge and skills

COLLEGE? ABSOLUTELY REQUIRED

As teachers will always remind you, the main skill you gain at college is the ability to process tons of information in a short time, structure it and filter it down to what’s important. You’re basically learning how to learn, not just learning a certain discipline. Of course your experience on the job will always be different from in the lecture hall, but the work you do in class will still prepare you for work you do later in a team.

COLLEGE? TOTALLY OPTIONAL

In today’s world, there’s no shortage of information. You can learn how to edit videos, master the rules of copywriting, give haircuts to dogs, play the guitar, speak Japanese, study Florentine art - all on YouTube, educational platforms, Instagram and other social networks. You can find videos, courses, workshops, articles, webinars...what matters is having the drive and not getting too distracted.

Let’s hear from a few Kazakhstanis who’ve found success themselves. 

Medkhat, 54 years old

CFO:

“In the early 90s, I had to drop out of college so that I could focus on developing my business. Then in the early 2000s, I kept finding that not having a degree was becoming an issue. For instance, having a degree was required to get official licenses for certain activities (construction, working with mineral resources), to participate in government commissions and purchases, to compete for commercial tenders, to get certain managerial positions at state and international companies, and many other situations. So yeah, higher education should be a priority. When I already reached middle age, I had to go back to school, but I don’t regret it at all - having a degree removes certain barriers, and it also makes you feel more confident in your social life. Of course, the quality of education in Kazakhstan is up for debate. But that problem is universal: there’s always a gap between theoretical knowledge and real world experience."

Oksana Kim-Flyosk, 41 years old

Entrepreneur, co-owner of Compote, Umami:

“I went from being a designer to being a baker and a pastry chef without wasting four years at the university of bakery and buns (which is actually a thing, by the way). All I had to do was complete a few short internships and courses where all the information that you’d learn in four years of college are condensed into a short period."

Madi Mambetov, 38 years old

Journalist, publicist:

“Unlike most people my age, I was lucky that I could choose what I wanted to do when I was even in seventh grade, back when I was invited to work as a youth correspondent at a newspaper for kids. That meant that long before I went off to college, I was already working in the journalism business, and when I couldn’t get a scholarship to study in the journalism department, I just kept working instead. I ended up getting my degree later than my peers, but I’m still confident that all the real-world experience I’ve gotten working from the age of 13 has done way more for me than spending than four years in college."

Illustrations: Aziza Kireyeva
This project is supported by a grant provided by the U.S. Embassy in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan. All opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Government or the U.S. Mission to Kazakhstan.

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