The Blank Space on My R‚sum‚

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Although it happens less today than early on in my career, just about every time someone inquires where I got my degree, much the same conversation ensues.

"I never graduated from college."

"You have no degree? You're kidding!" is the frequent response.

"Gee, that's amazing. Good for you," a colleague remarked recently, as though I had braved the elements to scale Mount Everest to make my mark on the world.

And these exchanges invariably end with: "Well, you probably didn't miss much. I'm not sure what good the four (or six, or eight) years did me. But I bet you get lots of surprised looks when people find out."

Indeed, I still do, years after the absence of a sheepskin unwittingly became something of a badge. On one hand, my decision to forgo college often came to represent closed doors or rejected applications, fortified by a wall of employment-section listings rigidly setting out minimal education requirements I didn't meet, and human-resources managers, plaintively confiding: "Don't blame me. I don't write the specs, I just fill the jobs."

At the same time, being degree-less helped me stick out from the crowd of applicants I competed against for my first jobs, or so I told myself. The blank space on my résumé engendered curiosity, if nothing else. It made for some pretty memorable job interviews, too.

"Kid," I remember one prospective employer earnestly advising, "if I were you, I would go to college and get some real-life experience under my belt before I went looking for a job."

As it was, I had graduated from high school in 1971 by the skin of my teeth. I wasn't college material then or even years later, when I tried being a part-time student. I can only recall feeling genuinely relieved to put school behind me, excited by the prospects of going to work and setting up house with a wonderful young woman who would much later become my wife. While most of my peers went off to campus, seemingly on automatic pilot, I was determined to find the right job. Since I had a pretty clear sense of what I wanted to do, it was just a matter of doing it.

Initially, as a newspaper reporter, and later as a public relations executive, I sat on the other side of the desk. I interviewed, hired, trained, and constantly learned from many dozens of co-workers, younger and older, most of whom were more formally educated, from one job to the next. I always felt fortunate to love what I ended up doing for a living and blessed to attract the counsel and support of many great mentors along the way. How could I hope to find either of these at college?

Looking back, I still would not trade the decisions I made for four years, a cap and gown, and a piece of paper, tough as it was to break through in those early years. The workplace always struck me as being a more open and level playing field than any I found in the classroom. I was raised in a world where nothing was impossible and just about everything within reach, if you were prepared to work hard for it. And I can't remember anyone in my family or at school suggesting, let alone insisting--as so many of us do with our children today--that college was absolutely essential to a successful career for everyone, not just for a handful of professions.

At a time when a growing number of young people have even more options and alternatives to chose from than most of us had 25 or more years ago, why does this basically flawed assumption continue to go unchallenged? Scores of well-meaning parents are working harder than ever, driven in part to save up huge sums of money so they can put their kids through four or, in some instances, more years of college. Many have resolved to borrow those funds or take out second mortgages when the time comes. Even more are left on the sidelines, however, carrying around the frightening image that their children will be left behind socially and economically because university education is out of financial reach.

In those households where the prospect is real, going to college is seemingly no longer a choice in which most teenagers appear to have any voice. Succumbing to both subtle and overt messages to toe the line ("This is the only way to make something of yourself") and follow the pack ("All of your friends are going"), many teenagers are becoming freshmen straight out of high school, against not-insignificant odds. A national study revealed that up to a third of all students won't return for their sophomore year, and that only about one-quarter will receive a bachelor's degree five or more years later.

If we look to the marketplace, the landscape is no less daunting--or confusing. Every year, thousands who already have a degree and work experience go back for more-advanced ones, diminishing the career-enhancement benefits of a now-basic bachelor's. Countless others are taking short-cuts to catch up. Record numbers are responding to those mail-order ads that tout: "Get a degree in 27 days, B.S./M.S./M.B.A./Ph.D, et cetera, including graduation ring, transcript, diploma. It's real, legal, and accredited, with five-year unconditional-refund guarantee, if status and career prospects do not improve."

Going to college is seemingly no longer a choice in which most teenagers have any voice.

Yet others are taking a more treacherous road to accomplish the same thing. Who can forget the well-publicized, tragic case of a by-all-accounts successful East Coast utility-company executive a few years back, who was fired and then took her own life, after it came to light that she falsified educational credentials? A recent executive-search-firm survey found that the percentage of executive candidates who misrepresented educational achievements on their résumés jumped by 50 percent during the first half of 1998. All of these trends send conflicting messages to young people about the role, importance, and value of college. They also reinforce how consumed our society has become with the need for ever more education at all costs.

The conventional wisdom would have us believe that college is the key to career advancement, job security, and wage-growth potential. But reality paints a different picture here, too. For instance, if the past decade is any indication, college graduates are just as likely to have little or no idea of what they want to do for a living or to find themselves being laid off by downsizing companies as their lesser-educated peers.

And who says they automatically make more money? In the most recent Forbes 400 rankings of America's wealthiest citizens, the average net worth of those who never graduated from college was $4.8 billion--some $2.5 billion more than Ivy League counterparts. Cutting across generations, occupations, and fields, the list of companies started or now led by executives with no degrees include Anheuser-Busch, Apple Computer, Barnes & Noble, CompUSA, Dunkin' Donuts, DreamWorks SGK, Ford, the Home Shopping Network, Merrill Lynch, Nike, OfficeMax, Pharmacia & Upjohn, Reebok, Seagram's, Virgin Atlantic, and Wendy's, to name just a few.

If people like these and so many others have made it to the top of their fields, why do we cling to the perception that someone with a degree is somehow smarter, fundamentally better equipped and prepared, and more disposed to learning or likely to succeed than those who choose to apply the same time, experience, and expense of additional education to building their careers in alternative ways?

To test this hypothesis, I have been documenting the stories and firsthand experiences of others who skipped or dropped out of college--Silicon Valley pioneers, entertainment-world innovators, and trailblazers from Wall Street to Main Street. My interviews to date reveal that a majority of these achievers approach learning, developing skills, taking risks, compensation and rewards, and even managing others in ways that tend to be quite different from more formally educated contemporaries. Many also share decidedly different views about the role of work and career expectations, including what constitutes real success in their lives.

But something even more provocative has emerged so far from my admittedly unscientific study. At least some of the perceptible differences between those who do and don't have college degrees seem to place relatively lesser-educated people in a better position to succeed in the workplaces of today and tomorrow, in which entrepreneurism, flexibility and adaptability, and out-of-the-box thinking are deemed critical but frequently lacking.

"When I think about how many Americans view higher education," a college dropout and entertainment-field leader told me, "I'm reminded of what Meryl Streep was quoted as saying: 'I really did think that life would be like college, but it isn't. Life is like high school.' Too many people still believe that life is like college. They think it is the only way to make something of themselves, the only way to get and stay ahead."

I'm not advocating that every high school student abandon plans to go to college. For many, higher education will continue to serve an invaluable role in helping shape their careers. Some professions will probably always require a degree or two. But I believe that parents, educators, employers, and community leaders should be more open-minded and encourage more young people to explore alternatives. When it comes to hiring requirements, we need to cast aside some of the old assumptions and stereotypes, which discourage too many teenagers from considering other options and making choices about post-high-school education that might better suit their individual goals, needs, or expectations.

As long as a degree remains the one and only ticket (and price) of admission to getting that all-important first or second job for all but a small and shrinking number of occupations, we risk that talent, ideas, and thinking shaped in different ways will slip through our hands. If the expense of college is skyrocketing, the cost of allowing that to continue will be even higher.

Byron Reimus is a Yardley, Pa.-based writer and management consultant on workplace-communications issues.

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