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Maybe college isn't everything

I USED TO ENJOY relaxing over the Sunday Inquirer with a hefty mug of high-test French roast. Not anymore.

SugarHouse Casino offers plenty of job opportunities that don’t require a college education.
SugarHouse Casino offers plenty of job opportunities that don’t require a college education.Read more

I USED TO ENJOY relaxing over the Sunday Inquirer with a hefty mug of high-test French roast.

Not anymore.

The last few weekends, I've winced my way through the Inky's Sunday series "Struggling for Work: The Broken Dreams of a New Generation." Combined with the caffeine, it has induced a morning sickness I'd thought was exclusive to pregnancy.

Accompanied by depressing graphs and online videos of college kids weepy with worry, "Struggling for Work" tells tales of young adults saddled with college-loan payments that will stalk them into middle age.

America's higher-ed debt is obscene: we've topped $3 trillion, enough to keep aging grads from buying homes, starting businesses or investing.

So much for the financial edge that a degree was supposed to grant our young'uns over the course of a lifetime.

On Monday, the White House called on Congress to prevent interest rates from cruelly doubling, come July, on federally subsidized Stafford student loans (carried by 393,584 Pennsylvanians). And a handful of Dems, led by Michigan U.S. Rep. Hansen Clarke, are pushing a student-loan-forgiveness bill that would help college debtors come up for air.

Well, hooray for that.

But what's been missing from the discussion is an acknowledgement that the biggest contributors to the tyranny of college debt are employers themselves — too many of whom make a college degree a requirement for a job.

Obviously, I'm not talking about fields like, say, nursing, whose positions require mastery of a body of science.

But, please, how many of America's entry-level jobs, white- or blue-collar, truly depend on the knowledge yielded by a four-year degree? Yet how many promising candidates aren't even summoned for an interview unless their resumes show a little sheepskin? No matter how esoteric the field of study or middling the academic work that accompanied it?

I've taught college students, and I can tell you that some of them were intellectually incurious, academically lazy and about as animated as the chairs they sat in. They were in school only for the credential it would provide.

It made me nuts to know that, on paper, they might be considered a better hire than an enthusiastic hard worker who lacked a degree.

Employers have long defended their use of a college degree as a screening tool for entry-level emoployees, says Penn sociology professor emeritus Ivar Berg, believing it to be indicative of a candidate's high productivity and stick-to-it-iveness.

"That might not have been as damaging years ago, before college became so expensive," says Berg, who in 1970 wrote "Education and Jobs: The Great Training Robbery," a wonderfully subversive and pioneering primer on the sociology of education.

Now, he says, dismissing a candidate solely for a lack of degree is not just shortsighted but prejudicial.

It discriminates against those without the economic resources, cultural influence or plain old desire to obtain a degree, says Berg, while actually favoring those who do.

"Studies have shown that people with college degrees are presumed to be more productive," says Berg, when the actual data in his and others' research doesn't bear that out.

In fact, he noted, a study of newly hired lab techs at two Ivy League research institutions showed that those who were hired without degrees, then given training and promotions in response to their hard work, had more longevity on their jobs than higher-credentialed new hires at a competing university, who brought more turnover to the workplace.

"The ones who were trained and promoted felt a greater sense of loyalty and appreciation to their jobs," says Berg. "Their labs were happier places to work."

A few years back, when Fishtown's SugarHouse Casino was courting community support for a gambling haven on Delaware Avenue, many who wound up supporting the casino were swayed by the fact that SugarHouse offers so many entry-level jobs that don't require a degree and that also offer advancement from even the lowest-paying gig.

SugarHouse spokeswoman Leigh Whitaker told me that, of the casino's 1,050 jobs, only 28 percent require a college degree — mostly accounting, analyst and director positions.

"Many positions in the 'professional' departments like finance, information technology, marketing and human resources require no degree at all," she says. "We believe that if you have a lot of energy, a good work ethic, a positive attitude and like to serve customers, we can teach you the technical skills of the job and help you grow in the industry."

No matter how you feel about gambling, that's a management practice that more employers could embrace.

It wouldn't hurt their bottom line. And it could begin to pull us out of the insane college debt that threatens to drown the work force for generations to come.

Contact Call 215-854-2217. Blog: Twitter: @RonniePhilly