From celebrity college admission scandals to campaign promises of student loan debt forgiveness, the high cost of four-year college degrees is in the spotlight again. According to the Federal Reserve, student debt racked up a jaw-dropping $1.5 trillion for more than 44 million Americans last year. Student loans rank second just behind home mortgages in consumer debt.
Indeed, we are facing a national crisis that demands we rethink a view that has become ingrained in our culture: that a four-year degree is the only path to success. We’ve been telling our young people that a degree from a costly, prestigious university will make or break their lives. As a result, they are signing up for tens of thousands of dollars of loans at 18 years old.
As CEO of a technology company here in Philadelphia, I want to tell young people — and their parents — that getting into a very expensive school is not “the” ticket to success. In fact, as commencement season approaches, my message to those entering the workforce is that the marketplace is a fresh slate where they will have to prove themselves all over again. In this new environment they will be interacting with people who view their career advancement as a competition with the person next to them. And, it truly is a competition.
The reality is that college is just the beginning of the fight, not the end. The marketplace is competitive and just because you have a degree, the way is not paved for you. When you walk into the office or the job site on your first day, you’ll enter into a world where you’ll collaborate and compete with people who have degrees from a range of schools, as well as those who don’t hold a degree at all. You will be measured on the results you achieve in the present and the future, not the past.
This message should come as a comfort to the millions across the country who don’t have the opportunity or the resources to gain admission to a top school but have the work ethic and drive to succeed. I know first-hand that people are more than the degree or even the professional position they hold — character, habits, and values are what I look for in people when they join our team.
I’ve held executive positions at companies for two decades, spearheading the turnaround of five software companies. While this might sound boastful, I’ve done this by hiring exceptional people. I look for people who will tip “the grit scale” — people with determination, discipline, and mental toughness. The most rewarding part of my career has been to watch people accelerate their careers because of their hard work —their confidence grows as they earn repeated successes. They get what I call the “swagger” and that is something everyone should feel at some point in their lives.
Those that enter the workplace with determination, dedication, work ethic, and a passion for learning will find themselves on the fast track to success. And, I’m not the only CEO who is noticing that personal qualities are better indicators of exceptional hires. Google, Penguin Random House, Costco Wholesale, Whole Foods, Hilton, and Apple are also taking this approach, and given today’s rapidly changing economy, I expect this approach to hiring will expand.
Many of the jobs that exist today likely won’t be around 10 years from now. Innovation will phase out today’s jobs and introduce new ones — this has happened throughout history, but the pace is quickening. Success in this type of environment requires forward thinking, not resting on the laurels of a college diploma or some other past experience. Those who thrive embrace grit, willingness to adapt, commitment to constant learning, and are strangers to complacency.
To be clear, I am not dismissing the college path. Anyone with the financial means should attend college because it is a binary disqualifier for so many professions. But the past should be viewed as a guide post and not a hitch post. So, if you didn’t go to college, you shouldn’t automatically lower your expectations. College is valuable, but it isn’t a requirement to be successful.
So, congratulations, Class of 2019. My advice to you is to celebrate the day, display your diploma proudly, and then roll up your sleeves to begin the next chapter. And remember, the door to success opens inward.