What Is Your College Degree Really Worth? Workers Weigh In

Specific job skills are more important to career advancement than a college degree, according to U.S. workers who participated in the latest employment confidence survey from career site Glassdoor. Seventy-two percent of workers surveyed by Harris Interactive said that skill-specific training matters more than a degree in terms of employability and earnings.

That's not to discount the value of a college degree. More than half of the surveyed workers, 56%, said that they thought a more advanced degree would help them advance their careers. And 67% of degreed employees in the survey said they felt their degree was an asset to their career.

Lifelong learning is key
But it does point out that, in terms of the average worker's career, a degree is a starting point rather than the end goal. Adding value isn't simply a one-and-done. The job market's requirements are evolving too quickly for that. It may be a discouraging thought to college students who are graduating with debt into a pokey job market; it's also a realistic tip for young workers who want to earn more so they can get rid of that debt sooner.

"For any employee looking to earn a bigger salary or move up the corporate ladder, they should do their research on how their industry is evolving, including identifying specific skill sets that are in demand," said Rusty Rueff, Glassdoor career and workplace expert.

In general, technical and mathematical skills such as statistical analysis, data mining, and Java and Python programming are in demand right now. But non-techies shouldn't despair: Experts say there's also a perennial need for workers skilled in critical thinking, active listening, and problem solving -- abilities that can be applied to virtually any career, at any time.

Rueff added that learning those skills doesn't necessarily require more college courses -- or debt.

"Going back to school may be one way to learn and improve, but there are also non-traditional ways, such as certificate programs, boot camps, webinars, online non-degreed courses, conferences and more," he said.

But collecting sheepskins may not be the answer
Going back for another degree might not be the best choice. The majority of the workers surveyed said they don't believe that a graduate degree is a must-have in order to land a high-paying job. But a bachelor's or associate's degree is still the ticket to middle-class earnings for most workers. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York's new analysis of the value of a college degree shows that a bachelor's or associate's degree has yielded an average return of 15% over the last 10 years, crummy economy and skyrocketing tuition notwithstanding.

Why? Because workers who have only a high school diploma are earning less these days, creating a widening gap in lifetime potential earnings for diploma holders compared to degreed workers. The Fed's analysis also found that even bachelor's degree holders who are underemployed tend to earn a decent return on the cost of their education, and they get paid more than high-school graduates doing the same jobs.

Even an irrelevant degree is helpful
So yes, that degree is most likely going to pay off in the long run. And workers already in the job force say that the actual content of the degree may not necessarily matter. Almost half said their degree isn't relevant to their current job, and 80% said they'd never been asked about their college grade-point average during job interviews. It looks like the most important thing is getting some sort of associate's or bachelor's degree and then following up with lifelong career skill-building.

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